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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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.


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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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 and on the EcoLabs website.


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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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.


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


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Visualising the Economic System – and Alternatives

Over the past six months I have been helping Occupy Design UK explore how design can be used to facilitate popular education on the structural causes of the recent economic crisis. During the London Design Festival we held an event at the V&A called ‘Exposing the 1% and De-branding the City’ where we examined information graphics and animations that illustrate the complexity of our economic system and exactly what went so wrong in the recent credit crisis. The following visualisations expose the dynamics and structural problems within the current economic system and propose what we can do to create a more resilient system for long-term prosperity, social justice and sustainability.

Crises of Capitalism. RSA Animate. Cognitive Media.

This animation features Marxist historian David Harvey’s analysis of the structural causes of the economic crisis and the role of crisis in the history of capitalism. Here animation studio Cognitive Media use the Monopoly metaphor that the Occupy Movement has also repeatedly used to describe the systemic dynamics of capitalism (another example can be found below). This video presents an overview of the contradictions of the capitalism system. While the Royal Society of Arts funded this animation, Harvey’s interpretation of the causes economic crisis remains marginal in mainstream economic discourse. The Occupy Movement has successfully created at least some discursive space in mainstream media for radical critiques such as this one.


Capitalism is a Pyramid Scheme

CrimethInc. Workers’ Collective and Packard Jennings. Pdf back of poster.


The poster included with the CrimethInc. Workers’ Collective book ‘Work’ is based on a classic illustration Continue reading

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier


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.

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


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?


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.

Financialization of Nature from ATTAC.TV 

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.


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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