The Green Economy: Reconceptualizing the Natural Commons as Natural Capital

green economy graphic Abstract: The green economy is an emergent approach to sustainable development launched at Rio+20. Herein environmental decision-making is increasingly achieved through economistic processes and logic. The natural commons are quantified and managed as natural capital. This paper summarizes the trajectory of the project and its ideological framework. It examines various conceptualizations of economic approaches to the environment and considers philosophical, methodological, and political problems associated with the green economy project. In the face of very different definitions of what constitutes a green economy, environmental communicators face a situation characterized by discursive confusion as the complexity of natural capital accounting processes conceal new political configurations. Counter movements argue that the green economy program is performing ideological work that uses language of environmentalism to obscure an intensified agenda of neoliberal governance and capital accumulation. The concept now has contradictory meanings. Environmental communicators have an important role to play in exposing the contested nature of the project and in helping to define the emerging green economy. Published March 13 in Environmental Communication. 50 free downloads here (until they are used up – please do not use if you have institutional login)

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Design vs. the Design Industry – Paper for the DRS 2014

Design vs. The Design IndustryPaper to be presented at Design Research Society’s conference DRS 2014.

Design can be understood as a practice that evolves as new cognitive and perceptual capacities enable a greater understanding of complexity, context and system dynamics. These emergent capacities create greater potential for social and technological innovation. This paper will argue that despite emergent skills, designers are not able to effectively address contemporary problems in a sustainable manner due to the systemic priorities of the design industry. This paper theorises ‘design’ as the professional practice of creating new products, buildings, services and communication as a broader practice than the work that is produced within the ‘design industry’. The design industry operates according to highly reductive feedback generated by capitalism that systemically ignores signals from the ecological and social systems. The exclusive focus on profit results in distortions of knowledge and reason undermining prospects for the design of long-term prosperity within the context of the current political/economic regime.

Download the paper here.

The History of the Concept of “Natural Capital” – First Coined by E.F. Schumacher in 1973 #NatCap13

The concept of natural capital was first used by E.F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful (1973). In the same book Schumacher wrote:

To press non-economic values into the framework of the economic Calculus… it is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price. It can therefore never serve to clarify the situation and lead to an enlightened decision. All it can do is lead to self-deception or the deception of others; for to undertake to measure the immeasurable is absurd and constitutes but an elaborate method of moving from preconceived notions to foregone conclusions…The logical absurdity, however, is not the greatest fault of the undertaking: what is worse, and destructive of civilisation, is the pretence that everything has a price or, in other words, that money is the highest of all values. (p. 27)

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Dr. Sian Sullivan describes the current meaning of the concept of natural capital as having its origins in the formation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) at the first Rio United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Earth Summit in 1992. The concept of natural capital gained popularity in business circles as a way of thinking about environmental governance and has encouraged by environmentalists such as Jonathan Porritt. Now, four decades since the concept was first coined, the idea has metamorphosed. The notion of nature as natural capital, and as equivalent to capital in the bank, is being adopted by the UK government. In 2011, then UK Environment Minister Caroline Spelman launched the report The natural choice: Securing the value of nature with the statement;

“…if we withdraw something from Mother Nature’s Bank, we’ve got to put something back to ensure that the environment has a healthy balance and a secure future” (2011).

By 2012, the UK established a Natural Capital Committee and economists began preparing to include a value for ‘natural capital’ in Britain’s GDP calculations by 2020. Meanwhile, at an international level, the Bank of Natural Capital website was launched in 2011 by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project, a programme supported by the United Nations and European Union. Within the Bank of Natural Capital, Sullivan explains that “nature’s stocks and flows are depicted such that they accord with the format of a standard online current bank account”. Herein nature’s processes are reduced to numbers that can be traded like other financial instruments.

The World Forum on Natural Capital – A Radical Approach to Environmental Decision-Making #NatCap13

The World Forum on Natural Capital meet today and tomorrow in Edinburgh. Here NGOs, governments, business and the financial industry will consider ways of valuing nature using the concept of natural capital. This project emerges out of programmes launched at Rio+20 such as the UNEP’s Green Economy Report and financial institutions’ Natural Capital Declaration. The forum will undoubtedly raise awareness on environmental threats, but the strategy of using “natural capital” to respond threatens to take environmental decision-making out of the political sphere and into the marketplace. Not only does this move erode democratic decision-making on the environment – but it will give more control over nature to the very financial institutions and corporations responsible for unsustainable development. The real threat is that the natural commons, the ecological space we all share, will be subject to a new wave of privatization under the pretense that corporations and financial institutions will suddenly become responsible environmental guardians – once natural capital is part of their balance books.

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This radical new policy approach to environmental decision making is being pushed by the UNEP, the UK government and a variety of environmental organisations eager to help business understand the environmental consequences of their activities. While well intentioned, the project lacks a critical view on corporate power and the ways in which neoliberal institutions work to appropriate the rhetoric of social and environmental movements to serve their own agenda. In this case, the project establishes conditions for resource and land grabs while also creating fantastic greenwashing opportunities for corporations. On the first day of the conference it has already been made apparent how the concept of natural capital accounting provides an effective means for corporations like sponsor Royal Bank of Scotland and presenter Rio Tinto to greenwash their disastrous environmental activities (RBC in Canadian Tar Sands and Rio Tinto in Indonesia and around the world).

Using Financial Logic to “Value” Nature

While we desperately need to develop more effective means to value nature, using financial calculations is an ill-conceived and dangerous approach for reasons that I describe at length in my recent paper ‘Re-imaging the commons as “the green economy”’.  Take the example of Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond’s claim that nature is worth between £21.5 to £23 billion per year to the Scottish economy. As always when we attempt to fix a financial figure to something that is priceless, the figure itself reveals gross errors in logic. If ‘nature’ in Scotland were to become radically de-stabilized and regional ecosystems were to collapse (say to due to run away climate change – or become heavily polluted due to severe radioactive contamination or groundwater contamination from fracking) than human habitation would become extraordinarily difficult, exposing residents to extreme hazards. Thus the idea that nature is only worth 10% of annual Scottish GDP is absurd – Scotland’s economy is 100% dependent on the relative stability and provisioning services provided by the natural world. This undervaluation of natural capital is only one of many flaws I describe at length in my paper.

Social Movements Respond

A counter-conference is taking place in Edinburgh called ‘Nature is Not for Sale: Forum on the Natural Commons’. This event exposes the political drivers and the interests being served by the World Forum on Natural Capital and highlights alternative means of managing the ecological commons. As World Development Movement director Nick Dearden tweeted today, there are many alternative approaches: ‘It’s happening: food sovereignty, community energy, remunicipalise water. Less finance, more regulation’. Organized by World Development Movement, Counter Balance, Re:Common and Carbon Trade Watch the ‘Nature for Sale’ conference asserts that the United Nations, governments and global financial institutions are planning ‘how to put a price on nature so it can be bought and sold as a commodity’. The ‘No to Biodiversity Offsetting’ declaration will be launched tonight. Natural capital accounting is radical the way that neo-liberalism is radical – radical in giving new powers to corporations and financial institutions while weakening democracy and government’s capacity to regulate corporate pollutors.

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Experiences of a Natural Disaster as a Catalyst for Climate Awareness

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Can the experience of a natural disaster such as the recent Colorado flood help individuals to confront the risks associated with climate change? Can dramatic experiences initiate a major learning experience or even a life transition? Based on the literature of sustainable education, levels of learning and transformative learning, a powerful disorienting experience can be (and often is necessary as) a catalyst for deep, transformative learning. For these reasons, natural disasters are an excellent opportunity to reflect on the risks we are taking as a civilization – and consider what we can do about about these risks.

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Ways of Knowing about Climate Change: Reflections on the Climate Wise Women Event

color-climatwisewomenOn Sunday night University of Colorado’s Inside the Greenhouse group hosted an ‘Climate Wise Women’ event. Constance Okollet and Ngozi Onuzo (from Uganda and Nigeria) talked about the impact of climate change in their lives. Constance Okollet described a flood that washed most of her village away, a drought that followed and the ongoing difficulties with Continue reading

The Colorado Flood: On Risk + Climate – What we can learn from natural disasters.

As some of the readers of this blog will know I recently moved from London to Nederland, Colorado (a small town outside of Boulder – where I work). I arrived just in time for the Colorado flood last week. My tiny home up at 8500ft elevation was undamaged, but the water ran down the canyon ripping up both roads and houses down stream in Boulder and beyond.

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Water from the mountains flowed down Boulder Creek at up to 25 times its normal intensity. The canyon road from Nederland into Boulder was badly damaged not only by mud and rockslides but by the erosion of its foundations as the earth dissolved into the river. Early this week I attended the town of Nederland post-flood recovery meeting where I witnessed the community coming to terms with the fact that the road we all depend on to get to Boulder has been partially washed away. Still we reminded ourselves that Nederland was lucky relative to many of our neighbours.

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Behind the statistics are thousands of stories and personal tragedies: 8 people killed, 11,750 people evacuated, 18,000 homes damaged, 1,600 homes destroyed, at least 30 bridges lost and an unknown quantity of roads and railway tracks severely damaged. Even more serious environmental disasters are in process as oil, gas and toxic fracking chemicals (including known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors) spills have become apparent at the site of at least 10 of the hundreds of fracking sites in the flood zone.

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Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’

The paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ was presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in June. This paper can be downloaded on www.academic.edu and on the EcoLabs website.

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ABSTRACT: The United Nations’ green economy programme radically re-imagines the commons as a space where ecosystems services will be quantified, marketised and traded. This paper will examine issues with this version of the green economy for environmental communicators. It will review the etymology of the concept, examine contested ideas on what a green economy would entail and situate these proposals in relation to different economic approaches to the environment. It will suggest strategies for communicating the contested nature of the proposals and exposing obfuscations. This paper will argue that in stark opposition to green economics with its focus on participation and democratic processes, the UN’s GEP will close deliberations on the commons by privatizing ‘ecosystem services’ – thereby taking environmental decision-making out of a political sphere and into the marketplace.

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ 

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) (2011) flagship document titled “Towards a green economy: Pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication” and accompanying UNEP reports at the Rio+20 in June 2012 launched the green economy project. The reports use strong environmental language as a means of presenting their version of green economy as a far-reaching programme of reform to address environmental problems on a global scale. While the rhetoric suggests that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis, green economists and a wide variety of social movements are less convinced by the proposed policy mechanisms. Civil society responded at Rio+20 with a plethora of critical responses: condemning what they claimed amounted to the corporate capture of the United Nations (Joint Civil Society Statement, 2012); condemning the UN’s “Natural Capital Declaration” (Banktrack, 2012); condemning 20 years of Greenwash (Bruno, 2012); and indeed, condemning the entire green economy project (Nadal, 2012; Brand, 2012a; Patel & Crook, 2012). The Indigenous People’s Global Conference on Rio+20 and Mother Earth (2012) issued a strongly worded “Kari-Oca 2 Declaration” (2012) describing the UNEP’s green economy as “a continuation of colonialism” (p. 1) firmly rejecting market-based solutions, REDD, and intellectual property rights over genetic resources and traditional knowledge. In the wake of the polarized positions at Rio+20, the conference ended with both civil society and the United Nations unimpressed with the outcomes. The New York Times claimed Rio+20 “ended here as it began, under a shroud of withering criticism” (Romero & Broder, 2012); The Guardian’s headline read: “Rio+20 outcome a focal point for frustration among campaigners” (Ford, 2012); and London’s Financial Times announced “Rio+20 lacks ambition, says UN chief” (Clark, 2012). The conference failed to achieve binding targets, but more significantly the conference launched the UNEP’s green economy programme, which aims to redesign the processes through which the global commons will be managed. Clearly the green economy is a fiercely contested idea and the UNEP’s version is strongly opposed by a wide variety social movements concerned with both ecological conservation and environmental justice.

In naming its programme the green economy, the UNEP implies a reframing of the entire economy along green lines. The language even suggests a connection to a particular school of economic thought concerned with the environment, that of green economics. However, the programme itself is largely concerned with attempting to protect the environment by establishing policies that will quantify and trade “ecosystem services”. This will be done in ways that reflect specific policy prescriptions of different schools of economic thinking on the environment, namely environmental economics and ecological economics. Since green economics is a field with radically different policy prescriptions to what is proposed, the naming of the new project creates severe confusion with contested definitions of the “green economy”. In this paper, the UNEP’s green economy programme will be referred to as “UN’s GEP” to avoid confusion with what green economists have been describing as “green economics” for over a decade.

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EcoLabs is moving!

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In Colorado, I will be working on visualising issues of the green economy and climate communication discourses. This work would be situated in the Integrating Activities research theme at CIRES will focus on the visual communication of complex ecological problems. This practice-based research would facilitate interdisciplinary collaborations and learning thereby contributing to greater capacities to respond effectively to environmental problems.

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The idea of free markets is an obfuscation

Recently I did an  interview with and talked about how the notion of free markets misrepresent our political and economic system. Here I am republishing part of this interview here (with their questions in blue text):

Yesterday, we published the first part of an interview with EcoLabs founder Joanna Boehnert. In response to a Blue & Green Tomorrow article about free markets (Free markets need to be free), Boehnert said on Twitter that it “[failed] entirely to deal with the problem that free markets systemically devalue the ecological wellbeing“. We asked her if she thinks the free market is therefore unsalvageable, and this was her response.

I am not against all markets absolutely. What I am absolutely against is misinformation, so it is important to note here that there is actually no such thing as a free market. Every market in the world has ways of working that was designed into the market, i.e. parameters that are predetermined. So-called free markets suit the interests of those who have the political power to design the terms of the market. What we have is a political and economic system that is neoliberal and capitalist. The idea of free markets is an obfuscation. Continue reading

There is an ‘Ecology’, the Fascist Turn and on Privilege

When Mckenzie Wark appeared on Novara, Resonance FM on May 28th 2013 he argued that a critical theory that does not confront environmental problems as one of its central problems was not worth discussing (I am paraphrasing – what he actually said was is more complicated and is transcribed below). Oddly, in this interview Wark managed to simultaneously acknowledge the validity of the environmental crisis as a theoretical problem – while also denying its implications in practice. For me this was a significant moment for Novara since it was certainly the best attempt they have yet made (that I am aware of) to engage with the ecological problem. Unfortunately, while Wark has many good ideas, his convoluted take on ecological theory is a classic example of extravagant lengths intellectuals (and especially the environmentally disengaged radical left) devise to continue to dismiss the most fundamental challenges posed by the ecological crisis and this culture’s legacy of ignoring ecological relations and perspectives. I will quote the most problematic parts of what Mckenzie Wark had to say starting with the following:

I would not call it an ecological crisis because that would presume that there ever was an ecology… and there sort of isn’t. It’s… what we know of the natural world includes its instability…and our species being is one that has acquired the capacity to kind of rupture environments on a kind of global scale. So I would be a little hesitant to use the word ‘ecological’….

Yes, it is true that what we know of ecology includes some instability – but far more important is the fact that there is relative stability within planetary boundary conditions. In a similar way to how our bodies can only function within a relatively narrow range of temperatures (maintained by homeostatic mechanisms), the earth will only be habitable for humans within planetary boundaries (including factors beyond climate change such as the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss). Once ecological Continue reading

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ – Posters, images and new resources

I am publishing two new posters associated with the paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy that will be presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in Uppsala, Sweden June 6th-9th 2013. The posters can images can be downloaded here (as low resolution jpegs) or higher resolution posters to print on the EcoLabs website.

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Above – Overview of problems associated with the UNEP’s ‘green economy’.

 

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Rio+20 – The Green Economy: Not what it appears!

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The language in the official UN documents promoting ‘The Green Economy’ published during the Rio+20 UN Conference for Sustainable Development last week is strikingly reflective of the language used by advocates of sustainability and even by social movements. In UN’s declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ certain phrases could have come from a Climate Camp press release; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ The document calls for ‘a great transformation’ and a recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient in the Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Are we finally making progress?

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Unfortunately what we are witnessing is not progress but an undermining of decades worth of green politics by using of the language of environmentalism while rejecting any accompanying structural analysis of the origins of ecological problems. The UN Green Economy programme uses phrases and rhetorics devices of green movements. Unfortunately, these are neutered of political potential. The Green Economy is about creating new markets for ‘ecosystems services’, the basic provisions of the natural world, now considered ‘free’ such as water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility. Creating new markets around these services sets the stage for the expansion of capitalism into the natural world – the global commons.

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The Green Economy is a programme of fixing prices for natural resources once regarded as free. Well-meaning ecologists, scientists and environmental policy makers are now working towards the construction of infrastructure for the financialisation and commodification of ecosystem services. These processes attempt to protect Nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage through economic processes.

Meanwhile, green theorists and social movements claim that without a macroeconomic analysis of the dynamics of neo-liberalism these policies initiatives will reproduce and even increase current problems. Tragically, by bringing neo-liberal economic mechanisms into the sphere of nature, the global commons will be subject to an intensification of exploitation.

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Alejandro Nadal, author of Rio+20: A Citizen’s Background Document, explains a fundamental error in the UN’s understanding of the management of the commons. The “global commons” is not what classical Romans called res nullius. Nadal explains that res nullius means that a thing has no owner and, therefore, anyone can appropriate it. Instead of having no owner, the global commons are commonly owned – they are res communis. The global commons must not be an object of private appropriation. We are a community – not commodities ripe for exploitation.

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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.

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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 Continue reading

What Next? The Rise of Authoritarian Housing

In the UK the homeless have traditionally been allowed to legally occupy long-term empty property. These rights were critical at key moments in history (such as after the WW2 when Britain experienced a housing crisis and squatting was rife). Squatters’ rights came to an end on March 27th when the government criminalised squatting* in residential properties (the new law will come into effect in a matter of months).

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I sent a Freedom of Information request to Lambeth Council to investigate the costs of evicting a long term squatted building in Brixton last summer. In July last year Lambeth Council evicted Clifton Mansions, a council owned block of 22 Victorian flats that have been squatted for the past two decades. Clifton Mansions is typical of a property that had been left derelict because its owners have not bothered to make use of it. Instead, individuals took it upon themselves to make homes for themselves in the flats at no cost to the state. While squatting may be detestable to those who hold property rights as the bedrock of civilization, for many squatting is a pragmatic solution to the extraordinarily high costs of housing and the surplus of houses that stand empty, unused and wasted. Continue reading