Market-based environmentalism under fire

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the fantastic Financialisation of Nature conference, co-hosted by the STEPS Centre, along with the Sussex Centre for Global Political Economy and Sussex Doctoral School. Organised by and run for PhD students and early career researchers, I was invited as a discussant on one of the sessions and attended some others. Fresh from exciting fieldwork in every corner of the world, participants shared insights, questions, conceptual challenges and practical dilemmas.

There were about 40 contributors selected from a large number of abstracts submitted – from the UK and across Europe, as well as India, Taiwan, Uganda, Ghana, Zimbabwe and more, including very active participation by Skype from Brazil. We were also privileged to have Jutta Kill and John O’Neill offering keynotes, and Bram Buscher, Larry Lohman, Hannah Mowat and others contributing to different sessions, including a very lively public roundtable.

Since the earlier discussions on ‘green grabbing’ and ‘Nature Inc.’, just a few years ago, the debate has moved on. This has happened thanks to going beyond the often fairly abstract conceptual discussions around the new confrontations of nature and capitalism in an era of neoliberalism to a more nuanced and sophisticated view, based on grounded empirical insights. This is where PhD research really comes to the fore. Many of the group at Sussex traveled to the field armed with the big picture theories, but confronted much more complex realities. A new round of theory-building, more rooted in diverse contexts, was underway last week. It was very exciting to have been involved.

We live at a moment when a particular paradigm of market based environmentalism, often wrapped up in particular forms of financialisation dominates. It is a powerful narrative, with big backers. For some it is a pragmatic route to getting finance, but does it work?

There were inevitably many cases of REDD (forest carbon offset) projects discussed from around the world. It’s something we’ve been looking into at the STEPS Centre (this project, for example), and a new book Carbon Conflicts and Forest Landscapes in Africa will soon be out in our book series. Again and again we see failures: these projects are not matching up to the ‘win-win’ promises, and not offering benefits to communities, rural development and climate mitigation. Markets are not forthcoming, and the projects are increasingly being supported as standard ‘results-based’ development projects. There may be some climate money that ends up in villages in Africa, Asia or Latin America, but is this really the best way to address the challenges of sustainable development? When confronted with the realities on the ground, market-based environmentalism is looking much less convincing, and open to challenge.

This was the big theme that cut through the conference. Although there was much, much more, hopefully captured in some forthcoming blogs, here are four things I learned from the diverse papers I listened to and read.

The limits to neoliberalism

While the work of David Harvey and others remains an important backdrop to the discussion, and the workings of capital in a globalised, financialised world a central concern, what was striking across many of the presentations was the limits to the hegemonic control of a liberalised, market-driven approach.

Carbon prices are so low that markets don’t function; the mechanisms for certification are so complex that start-up funds are required, very often from the state, NGOs or international donors; price setting and demand for new commodities from nature is variable and require state regulatory frameworks to make them work. And then, when such programmes hit the ground, the imposition of new property regimes uncovers all sorts of old disputes and rekindles old conflicts, as we heard from Acre in the Brazilian Amazon and elsewhere. What’s more, nature itself doesn’t always play ball. To create markets, nature must be tamed, bounded, controlled and priced for it to be exchanged and sold. But this assumes nature is stable in the way that some versions of economics assume. Time and again, cases showed that nature is dynamic and not in equilibrium, this puts into question the whole calculative fabric of many schemes, with their baselines, additionality measures, control areas, offset equivalents and the rest. Whether it is the Bani grasslands of Kutsch in India, the migratory wildlife populations of Zimbabwe or the floodplains of Britain, nature is not so easily controlled.

In sum, unruly markets, unruly people and unruly nature undermine the neat and simple designs of such schemes, requiring challenge and renegotiation in the field.

People making markets

There were lots of great discussions about the socio-technical processes of making markets: the calculative devices deployed, the performative turns, the blackboxing of uncertainties, the discursive constructions of market elements and so on. I also had several really interesting discussions about people, professionals and expertise.

Some of the mechanisms for creating value and establishing offsets are, it must be said, plain bonkers. We heard about how football pitches – with a numerical habitat and biodiversity value – are used as a unit in a UK offset scheme, with (if I remember rightly) five football pitches in the development area, being equivalent to half a football pitch area in an offset area. And there was an excel file with a set of numbers plucked from somewhere to prove it! This is what the UK Department for Environment and Rural Affairs gets up to. And it is not alone. Serious people, with good qualifications and no doubt great professional integrity and a deep commitment to protecting the environment are doing this every day, all across the world. Surely there are objections? What is it that, despite the obvious absurdity of many of these exercises, makes them persist? Of course DEFRA and other ecologists are perfectly well versed in dynamic ecological thinking, they all know that biodiversity is locality specific and the result of complex ecological and evolutionary processes. Planners too know that equivalence of this sort doesn’t really make sense.

So what’s going on? We discussed the pressure to act, and the way a dominant frame provides very little option. “It’s better than nothing”, is the pragmatic response. Pressures of work, the audit culture of too many organisations, means a simple excel matrix with one number means that it fits ‘the system’. And because of the disciplining power of the mainstream, created by an extraordinary dominance of a particular strand of neo-classical environmental economics, there is no alternative frame to engage with. And in this way markets are created by people locked in particular institutional and professional cages.

Breaking out of these cages strikes me as an urgent challenge – and this will mean constructing an alternative way of thinking and acting. It is actually very easy to critique (especially when some of these schemes are so weird), but critical social science needs to engage, and work with ecologists, planners, biodiversity experts and more in a co-learning mode to find ways, within the inevitable institutional, funding and other strictures that exist, to imagine something different.

The perils of participation

There is much talk of inclusion, safeguards and deliberation in these new market oriented schemes for nature. Good governance is a requirement. But what does this mean?

Very often such participatory processes are a ritualised, performed process of co-optation. They tick the boxes to gain the safeguarding certification and approval and so validate the market relations that bring credits and profits. But power relations are highly skewed and alternative perspectives are avoided given the disciplining power of consultation processes, designed by project proponents. As a route to justifying market interventions, such sham forms of participation have a wider effect in propping up the often very shaky edifice of the interventions themselves – and the companies, consultants and agencies that support them.

Because of their profoundly non-democratic nature, very often routes to objection are forced outside the process, and may result in conflict and violence. Recapturing spaces for genuine debate is, everyone agreed, essential.

Alternative frames

So what alternatives are emerging?

There was less discussion of this at the conference, but there were hints. We heard of more ‘territorial’ approaches to landscape conservation from Latin America that understand the importance of linking nature with culture, identity and community. We heard of the importance of thinking about culture, values and ethics as part of such schemes, avoiding the Cartesian separation of nature from culture and livelihood. We heard of shifts away from the individualist property rights frame of many approaches to a more collective response, drawing on an ‘institutional bricolage’. We heard of the importance of moving beyond the forced consensus of participation to addressing conflict, dissent and dissensus in project development processes. Such alternatives are tentative, emergent and clearly highly marginal given the dominant frame, but well worth uncovering and sharing.

As the market blueprint, promoted so forcefully by many, frays at the edges, there will be opportunities to challenge and construct different ways of doing things. Here there is a real role for critical social science, in my view. Not so much in the ivory tower critique mode but as part of a more collaborative engagement, working with participants in such schemes (the ecologists, planners and economists), the local communities affected and progressive elements of the institutions supporting them. No-one denies the importance of biodiversity protection, climate mitigation and so on, but finding a democratic and effective way of addressing such challenges remains elusive. Top-down state-led interventions failed in the past, and now market-based fixes have been found seriously wanting.

Negotiating pathways to sustainability is a complex, political task, but one where new approaches are urgently needed. This conference showed the limits and dangers of one approach and some glimpses of alternatives. There is however much more work to be done – so next stop is the STEPS Conference on Resource Politics in September, where these debates and more will continue.

Ian Scoones participated in the conference Critical Perspectives on the Financialisation of Nature: Theory, Politics and Practice which took place in Brighton and at the University of Sussex on 19-20 March. The event included a public roundtable debate, Nature as Commodity, on the evening of 19 March.