Tuesday, November 02, 2010

What is an ecosystem worth? Is capitalism King Midas?

After mentioning the "successful" negotiations at Nagoya a couple of days ago, it is worth reading this piece by George Monbiot to keep things in perspective.
"It suits governments to let us trash the planet. It's not just that big business gains more than it loses from converting natural wealth into money. A continued expansion into the biosphere permits states to avoid addressing issues of distribution and social justice: the promise of perpetual growth dulls our anger about widening inequality. By trampling over nature we avoid treading on the toes of the powerful.
"As soon as something is measurable it becomes negotiable. Subject the natural world to cost-benefit analysis and accountants and statisticians will decide which parts of it we can do without. All that now needs to be done to demonstrate that an ecosystem can be junked is to show that the money to be made from trashing it exceeds the money to be made from preserving it. That, in the weird world of environmental economics, isn't hard: ask the right statistician and he'll give you any number you want.

"This approach reduces the biosphere to a subsidiary of the economy. In reality it's the other way round. The economy, like all other human affairs, hangs from the world's living systems. You can see this diminution in the language TEEB reports use: they talk of 'natural capital stock', of 'underperforming natural assets' and 'ecosystem services'. Nature is turned into a business plan, and we are reduced to its customers. The market now owns the world."

- George Monbiot, "We've been conned. The deal to save the natural world never happened".

At stake in this discussion is a very important question that divides responses to ecological crises: can the logic of capitalism be a force for ecological good? Or does expanding the logic of the market into every sphere of life ultimately end up destroying everything? Is capitalism King Midas?


Pete Wood said...

One might wonder actually, whether the root cause of the problem is modern economics. If we trace the history of modern economics it seems that the beginnings of mass environmental destruction began at the same time as the roots of modern economics, ie. the enlightenment and the industrial revolution that followed it. So has economics as we know it been the real killer of the enviroment all along? Of course, economics is often just a different word for greed.

Anonymous said...

My view is use whatever works. We've just got to save the biodiversity! Then after some of our madness has been reversed we might have a chance to help plundered regions regrow and recover.

So in some regions it makes stacks of economic sense to save the ecosystem. But that doesn't mean we overlay a new market worldview over the whole of nature! That's just one tactic in the (failing) war to save biodiversity. It's just one arrow in our quiver, and I think Monbiot is over-reacting.

My repair ecosystems page summarises some of the trends in conservation as:

"3. The strategies: Park it, Buy it, Trade it, Publish it!"

If you can't turn it into a national park, have some philanthropists buy it outright, as happened in Tasmania recently.
Tasmanian-based businesswoman Jan Cameron and a group of fellow philanthropists have given 28,000 hectares of land to the Tasmanian Land Conservancy.

Then there's 'trading' to save it, such as carbon trading schemes that pay native groups not to log the forest. Most important here is the perception that this money will not be paid next year if the forest is harmed! This can be useful where a weak national government has declared a forest as protected parkland, but the indigenous folk don't care, or don't have any other choice! (From memory there are parks in Indonesia that are being illegally logged but due to corruption or lack of police manpower, it continues anyway).

If we can't Park it, Buy it, or Trade for it... publish the horror!
You know all the usual journals that come out with the same sad old story.

Sorry... feeling a bit doomer today.

byron smith said...

Pete - Yes, you're right to see some very significant shifts in economic assumptions (and even the founding of the modern disciple of economics by Adam Smith here in Edinburgh) at the time of the industrial revolution. I'm quite sympathetic to the idea that embedded within some of these new assumptions are (many of) the roots of contemporary ecological degradation and destruction. I think the story is more complex than this (and there is a role for some bad theology too, as well as legal decisions about the status of corporations as people and various other mistakes), but the assumption that the invisible hand of the market as a form of providence will ensure the ever upward progression of human society is deeply flawed in failing to account for a finite planet that is not endlessly resilient to human exploitation.

Dave - Whatever works: I agree, though with the proviso that it actually works and isn't just setting us up for worse. I'm getting the point where I think some measure of simplification (i.e. "collapse" in Tainter's terms) may well be necessary to avoid even greater collapse. There are ways of "solving" problems that push the issue a few years or decades into the future, while also making the scale of the problem larger. We're all familiar with the idea of how crazy it is to try to pay off one credit card with another credit card: this "solves" your debt problem, it works, but only in the short term and at the cost of making the problem larger next month. If we "solve" the biodiversity problem through expanding the reach and power of major corporations, then I think we may be effective in the short term, but at the cost of making the long term issue even more difficult.

byron smith said...

PS "Park it, buy it, trade it, publish it" isn't a bad summary of some useful options (decreasingly useful as you go through the list, but I take it that is the point). However, each of these addresses the symptoms (perhaps somewhat successfully), but without touching the root cause. If in ten years' time we end up with more national parks but also more greedy little consumers who expect to live at ever higher levels of consumption, then we've just kicked the can down the road. National parks and other kinds of land and marine reserves are an important plank in any strategy, but if that's all we're doing, then perversely, that can end up justifying more degradation of the ecosystems outside the protected areas. If we work with binary categories of "pristine" and "non-pristine" and try to put all the pristine into national parks, we may be sacrificing the (much larger) non-pristine areas to even greater exploitation.

That said, I'm in full agreement that at this stage we basically need "all of the above" on many of our most pressing issues. It's just that in some very significant cases, there are direct conflicts between some of the methods of e.g. mitigating peak oil and mitigating climate change. And so even "all of the above" needs further qualification (unless we pick a single issue and focus only on that).

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the concern! It’s like the so called ‘hydrogen economy’ which would only massively increase the amount of energy we need to use to split the water in the first place, and maintains the suburban dwelling plan that could be retrofitted along New Urban lines within 20 to 30 years… avoiding the need for most of our car trips in the first place!

However, back to valuing ecosystems. Proponents that economically value ecosystem services are not recommending that we just hand over the planet to 'our new corporation overlords'! If anything, we want to recommend more power to local people and groups in managing their environment, and clearer powers as to who manages what in our democratic institutions. We hate the idea that some unaccountable, overseas multinational might just barge in and do whatever they want! That's not 'valuing ecosystem services' at all.

Rather, when questions of land development do come up with the legitimate local Mayors and State Parliamentarians, we want them duly informed. We want them to know just how much a given ecosystem already does. We want them horrified at the idea of losing such an important water catchment that is also providing fresh air, waste management, and a free home for important biodiversity! It's about good information with the local authorities. If those authorities are local councils and governments, we inform them. If there's hardly a functioning local government structure, we try to create that as well! (Listen to Willie Smits built a rain-forest to hear how he not only restored slash-and-burn land to rain-forest, but created an empowered local community as well).

byron smith said...

Proponents that economically value ecosystem services are not recommending that we just hand over the planet to 'our new corporation overlords'!
Maybe not explicitly, but they are saying that putting a price tag on everything is the best way of determining what we ought to do, producing a uniform moral-monetary calculus to enable us to perform cost-benefit ratios in a single "language" on butter, bees and biomes. This move is an acknowledgement that the marketplace is the highest expression of human judgement and that economic interests express our deepest desires. Ultimately, this is also usually taken to imply that corporations are the most fundamental providers of the "wealth" by which our live is measured and mastered.

Anonymous said...

Possibly some people might take it that way. But it depends on how this information is presented. It should be a part of a package of arguments that I imagine being presented a little like this:

A/ It's an important ecosystem in its own right

B/ Will our children and grandchildren forgive us if we wipe out the last .....?(insert cute cuddly animal or wild-flower or tree here). The way have wiped out so many species over the last 200 years is just immoral. Here and now we can make a difference, this time and in this place. Are we really going to risk snuffing out these species?

C/ The local people want it! What right do we have to barge and destroy their environment when they love the area and want to see it protected?

D/ This ecosystem itself generates freshwater / cleans waste / whatever, which is worth 5 times the economic value proposed in developing the site.

E/ Ecotourism could be worth $20 to $40 million a year to the local townships

Even some energy utilities are starting to realise the economic value of some ecosystems. I heard of one power station urging government to protect the local forest because they realised it was a water catchment that filtered water down the river to help run the power station! Without the trees transpiring water, the critical mass of moisture in the air might not have been reached and the rain that was there might not have fallen.

So where appropriate, I don't see anything wrong with presenting the moral and economic arguments... especially if the moral arguments just aren't working on the town mayor or other players.

byron smith said...

Sure, in their proper subservient place, economic arguments might carry some weight. The issue is that the "some people" you mention who "might" take the argument in this direction (expanding the logic of the market into every area of life) are generally those with all the money (and so all the power) and who have an ideological commitment to pursuing this agenda.

byron smith said...

CP: an extended reflection upon the myth of King Midas.

byron smith said...

Speaking of inequality, some eye-opening stats from the US.