Financialisation of Nature: why we need politics and theory

Guest post by Andrea Brock and Mareike Beck, School of Global Studies, Sussex University

5eurofrog2In recent years, a broad range of new instruments have been promoted and celebrated to tackle climate change and environmental degradation. One well-known mechanism, hailed by its proponents as the key to saving the climate while also helping to eradicate poverty, is carbon offsetting.

The most well established market manifestation can be found in the EU, which has had an infamously dysfunctional Emissions Trading System (ETS) in place since 2005. While the EU ETS has continuously failed on its own terms, ie to ‘properly’ price carbon emissions.

Instead of shelving the creation of markets for nature however, new concepts, programs and systems based on offsetting (the belief that you can compensate for the adverse impacts that economic activity has on the ecosystem by ‘creating’ or conserving nature elsewhere) have proliferated. Carbon offsets, however, are only one of a variety of instruments which involve framing nature in financial terms.

Trading biodiversity?

Biodiversity trading schemes represent the newest and most peculiar manifestation of offsetting, and they have arisen in response to global concerns about the current devastating loss of biodiversity caused by our current uses and abuses of nature.

The sixth great extinction is commonly associated with human action in general, and a shift from one geological epoch – the Holocene, to another – the anthropocene. This popular understanding, though, is itself misleading. It is not the weight of humanity that is degrading the planet, but the weight of human social relations, specifically capitalist relations.

Whether and to what extent the economy can be ‘greened’, as the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) maintain, is hotly contested; but what is essential is a critical perspective on whether the failure of markets can be adequately addressed by instruments designed to tackle ‘market failure’.

How did we get here?

Ecologists have pointed out that ecological systems have complex interdependencies that are difficult to break down into discrete and tradeable pieces of nature.

This poses a fundamental question: how have we arrived at an era where climate change and environmental degradation are well-known phenomena – yet keep implementing mechanisms and policies that conceptualise nature in arguably simplistic, but unarguably problematic terms? How did we get here? And even more pressingly, how do we get out?

This is a question we will be debating during our public roundtable discussion on Nature as Commodity (this Thursday 19th of March, 5-7pm at the Friends Meeting House, Ship Street, Brighton). The roundtable is itself part of an invite-only workshop, Critical Perspectives on the Financialisation of Nature: Theory, Politics and Practice, which will address debates about the theories, practices and politics of the newest (economic, market and financial) approaches to saving our planet.

At these events, we’ll be debating what is at stake within the financialisation of nature. What are the practical, political and theoretical innovations that we need in order to understand the way our environment is being governed, in our name?

More importantly, we will also be asking: what are the approaches that will make sure that we leave fossil fuels in the ground instead of burning them; stop environmental degradation instead of cutting down more and more rainforests; reduce the production of greenhouse gases instead of trading them; and stop species extinction instead of betting on their survival (or rather destruction) with the newest financial innovations? Watch this space for answers to these questions in the following weeks…

Photo credit: j_vollmer / Flickr

About the authors: Andrea Brock and Mareike Beck are co-organisers of the conference Critical Perspectives on the Financialisation of Nature: Theory, Politics and Practice on 19-20 March in Brighton. A roundtable debate, Nature as Commodity, will take place on the 19th at 5pm. The evening roundtable is open to the public, but the conference is only open to registered participants. Both events will be discussed on Twitter using the hashtag #sellingnature.