‘We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom’. EO Wilson
The Act of Pricing Nature
No, sorry, I won’t be rallying support for The Nature and Wellbeing Act, as it stands, with Chapter Four in place. Underpinning the latest Conservation NGO backed Green Paper for The Nature and Wellbeing Act is its Chapter Four, the economic valuation of nature and, particularly, nature’s services to us in the form of PES (Payments for Ecosystem Services). I’m passionate about nature and so are the people who propose this Act, I’ve no doubt. Nature desperately needs defenders. So how could I even think to object?
Chapter Four is a fundamental value misjudgement being made by our conservation NGOs here in the UK.
Sometimes, good intentions don’t turn out well. I’ve raised some of my concerns with advocates. My reach of course is small compared to theirs. But I’ll make some of my points here, again, none-the-less.
We have to look to changes in the way we all relate and value nature.
It’s time for every single one of us to make pro-nature decisions in our every day lives. So what changes in values are being suggested here to orchestrate those everyday decisions? Sadly, instead of cherishing nature and the services it provides us on the basis of love, reciprocity, wonder or for the simplest and clearest of all values, intrinsic value (nature for its own sake, beyond our own purpose), the NGOs are suggesting to legislate for a single value ~ the £. Like everything else in our capitalist society, the monism of money is all pervasive. But the reduction of all life to this single metric is impossible without losing essential elements of what it means to be human. Advocates say Natural Capital and Payments for Ecosystem Services are just two of many ‘tools in the box’ to conserve nature, though obviously they are targeting government and business. We have seen the market-bias politicians already going to work on the idea, with the onset of Biodiversity Offsetting, a controversial policy to say the least. But in order to change the way ALL people value nature, regardless of government or business, to value by the £ is an exclusive act, not inclusive. And as a value, money is INCOMMENSURABLE with so many other critical values such as justice and love. Conflicts may arise from trying to weigh one value against another. Sometimes, it’s impossible. Just look at the radical incomparability of money and love. When money is metric, corruption becomes a real danger. Money as metric combined with an absence of other measured values are often reasons why conflicts fail to resolve. If anything, non-monetary values must be measured and evaluated on their own terms. Let us legislate for that and offer tools for that purpose instead.
Nature is our life support but we are also intrinsically part of nature.
Follow this argument through, and we must then also price ourselves. As we are overpopulating, then perhaps we ought to consider we are cheap. Does this assist in government and business decision making? Logically, it could. Morally, it shouldn’t. Nature is intensely interconnected, no-one species more important to the overall picture than any other. Of course, there are dependencies. Ecosystem services exist in all manner of ways, some of the processes we still do not fully understand and may never fathom. Critically, there are species more or less important to differing humans, depending on what purpose (or service) we choose to select. How do we value the disparity between useful and less useful species, the individual beings, dominant or as keystones (or not) to that ecosystem? How do we value the minutiae and the undiscoverable? I suggest there is little science here and more art.
Who will do the selecting?
The question is, of course, rhetorical. Scientists who back PES inevitably become valuable in themselves. And so the process might actually be construed as a self serving exercise. They become the ‘opaque lawyers and accountants’ of the natural world, far from the grasp of most ordinary people. Scientific calculations themselves may be commodified and there are questions on the ethics of the commodification of scientific research and questions of neutrality. Another blogpost perhaps.
The focus on Natural Capital valuation is intensely materialist. And this kind of materialism is now jarring.
On the surface, there is an obvious appeal. Nature becomes financially ‘visible’ to businesses and political institutions. There seems to be a tremendous gap between this point and the point at which nature is protected by these very same institutions. The fact is, if we want to protect nature, then we should simply PROTECT IT. By pricing nature by the £ we lay nature more vulnerable to commodification and make the situation far worse. Nature as £ = Property. When market values conflict with other values, say in planning applications for development, key property rights generally have to be either held, or consents granted or withheld, by the parties pushing to protect. It makes sense. Often, grassroots objections come from the general public who neither hold land nor specific power over consents. NGOs, however, in gaining property rights, gain considerable power over decisions. Some might go a long with this notion as an alternative to democracy, an extension of the professionalisation of conservation. But I don’t. There’s little democratic say and only serves to intensify exclusivity.
Contrary to popular belief, many rich veins of sustainability gold can be found emanating from the US. I find this is no surprise given the number of truly inspirational enviro-ethicists across the Pond. From the communality of National Parks to the educationalist vision of ecoliteracy for all, from Bioneers to SteadyStaters, there’s a veritable rainbow of North American ideas and research to match. But it is Gretchen Daily, a professor at Stanford Woods, California, which Chapter Four owes much of its existence. She co-founded the Natural Capital Project, which is globalised partly through the Nature Conservancy (criticised for being too close to big business), of which she is also a board member. Daily says herself, her goal is to ‘align economic forces with conservation’ and her latest book is entitled, ‘The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable’. She makes no bones about it. The ideas have been seized upon, of course, by pro-growth environmental economists such as Oxford’s Dieter Helm, (who also supports UK shale gas, by the way), on ‘pragmatic’ merits. But I argue, along with others, the system of which they are complicitly supporting, capitalism, is destructive and divisive. It’s business-as-usual, except nature is now even more accepted as instrumental to economic growth. This is a huge mistake. We can’t fix a problem by applying the same causal mentality.
Pricing nature is not integrally an educational or spirit-stirring move.
There are other human non-monetary currencies to apply, of course, including reputation, authority, attention, intention, time, ideas, creativity, health, trust, loyalty, conviviality, sympathy, affection, admiration, companionship, devotion and aesthetics. Let’s not forget life itself. To value all other life on Earth for its own sake, an intrinsic value, beyond all human purpose, sees there is no argument between varying human values (in my view, the best metric to begin on axiology). Why has there been no real effort in developing metrics for any of these other values in order to protect nature for the good of ALL life? There’s no doubt in my mind that the ‘capture of opportunities’ in a capitalist system of private & corporate property ownership by the minority rich is hastening the widening of the gap with the poor. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And nature, labelled resource, still bears the brunt of these destructive powers. But once the value conversion from, say, love to money is made, and nature commodified, it is THE MARKET which determines value, and the market can be steely, selfish and volatile.
In creating a new beast, the beast will have its own mind and conservationists will have trouble in keeping it under control.
I go so far as to say that markets might understand scarcity even more than conservation biologists. Rare things are generally of higher value, of course, but that does not equate to protection. The aim of conservation, if I am not mistaken, is to transform the rare into the common. Markets will respond. Common things are generally valued as cheap. Rarities are also EXCHANGEABLE and will, of course, either be consumed by exploitation or cached out of the reach of the majority. Tracts of ecosystems and accompanying data sets become accumulated by only the few with wealth. Is this fair? Out of the window, once again, flies social justice and equity. Hedge fund managers will find the risks very attractive, of course. And the Environment Bank is keen to trade credits. And then there is tax, insurance and artful accounting. Private or public owned, nature as property is vulnerable to the will of the few. At least community accumulation is more democratic. But this is not singularly what the NGOs are calling for. Most NGO’s are not generally democratic entities in themselves, relying more upon endorsement by Membership rather than internal votes or polls. I see this in full flow just now. The statements are being made, and support is expected to follow, rather than co-operative democratic & creative decision making from the ground up. NGO’s do not equate to the electorate, despite their influence in public consultations. Many board members might still not wish to listen to ideas on changing the economic paradigm, because their existence is, in many ways, reliant upon the current flow of money. Nature is exploited by capitalism, yes; valuing nature by the £ only serves to invite novel advantages taken by increasingly leviathan corporate economies, which already lean heavily against protective legislation. Just look at how many political advocates of corporatism there are right now wanting to unravel the gains made by the EU Habitats Directives. They see legislation as red tape to prevent debt repays or profit. Unfathomable battles lie ahead, with novel expansions of market and entrepreneurial creativity requiring more and more legislation (expensive), in order to protect what really is infinitely invaluable. Baselines and capital adequacies will be crystallised by financiers, and any future ecosystem imbalances will more easily be blamed upon that data. The financiers may walk away with no consequence, as we have already seen during the Crash, at huge social and environmental cost.
How far could we go?
To value nature financially is to bring all things down to one homogenous rule. For all the mysteries still to be discovered, the varieties and diversity of species and the colourful lives of all those individual beings, to value nature by the £ only serves to promote nature as insipid, dull and singular. It is, in one word, disconnecting. What example does it set to young people, aspiring naturalists and enthusiasts? We could value the moon; it’s gravity causes tides and coastal biodiversity after all. What good would this truly achieve? Little, if any. Once again, let me be clear. This is not something I imagine most who love nature would do with grievous intent. Instead, I see conservation biologists, reductionists by nature, and somewhat panicky, simply taking up the Stanford materialist baton. Personally, despite the disbanding of the Sustainable Development Commission by the current Coalition government early upon taking office, I haven’t given up hope on an up-swelling of people to scrutinise public decision-making on sustainability and a pursuit of mainstream ecoliteracy for all. Just look at the Green surge! I see no fairer and successfully long-term way to move forward.
Paid conservation biologists and economists are not the only people with views on Nature and the we way humans ought to relate to it.
Everyone has the right to know why nature is ‘valuable’ and ‘vital’ but slapping a price on species and ecosystems, gathered by the few for the few, only takes us backwards. I just hope others are given the chance to air their concerns, contribute to a cross-disciplinary collective wisdom of our age and voice alternatives for mindful coexistence with nature before this Act, as it stands, is set in stone.
The Nature & Wellbeing Act may be found here, please do read Chapter Four in relation to this blog ~ http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/nature_and_wellbeing_act_green_full_tcm9-384572.pdf
I also attach a very interesting, recent blog by Herman Daly himself on the uses and abuses of the concept of Natural Capital, via http://www.steadystate.org ~ http://steadystate.org/use-and-abuse-of-the-natural-capital-concept/comment-page-1/#comment-12678 . Daly was one of the earliest economists to explore the concept of Natural Capital shortly after the publication of E F Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’, and is an executive board member of CASSE. I fully support their position statement and signed the pledge over two years ago.
9 thoughts on “The Act of Pricing Nature”
Great blog. I’ll have a read of the links. Thank George Monbiot for putting me on to your excellent writing. Regards Julian
Thank you so much Julian, very kind. I’ll thank George also. 🙂
I agree with your thoughts on the futility and irrationality of pricing nature. I wrote an article about this issue in Anarchist Studies in 1994. As a recently retired professor of sustainability (Murdoch University, Perth, WA) I am now working on a set of ideas that might replace sustainability and cognate concepts. I am now a ‘professor of sumbiosity’ at Wallaby Farm in rural NSW … trying to avoid solastalgia as developments with big dollar values (coal mines, gas fracking) trump intrinsically valuable nature and culture pop up all around me. However, I am fighting for intrinsically valuable aspects of life in the land and environment court of NSW as an expert witness in a current case of a village Vs Rio Tinto. I am defending the right of citizens to live in a home environment that gives them solace, topophilia, eutierria and sumbiosity (see:http://healthearth.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/using-greek-to-save-greeks-and-rest-of_11.html). All power to you (safe, non polluting and renewable).
Glenn (new email is: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Glenn, so very interesting to hear from you and I’m grateful for your comments. It’s quite tragic that here we are, some twenty years on from your paper, writing about the same issue. The Conservation NGOs in the UK are now trying to legislate for monetising nature and I truly feel they are making a mistake. They are not even asking for a Commons Bank of Environment, and commodification is a real risk. Sumbiosity, if I may be presumptuous, looks to be a form of natural Coexistence in balance, which is absolutely where we should be be looking. I’m fascinated and will read your work, most definitely. Thanks also for your e-mail. Good luck in your endeavours, not least as expert witness. I wish your community well!
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