I recently watched a documentary called Banking Nature that examines the valuation and monetisation of ecosystems and the concept of ‘natural capital’. How much is nature worth to you? How much are the trees outside your window worth? What about the bees that pollinate your crops? It turns out that bees are worth about 200 billion US dollars a year to agriculture in the US. Just the rain that the Amazon forest produces is worth about 240 billion to the farmers of South America.
Some economists believe that these valuations can help us better understand the importance of nature: if we know that an ecosystem is valuable, we may be less likely to destroy it. Other economists, however, see them as more than interesting ‘thought experiments’: they are the first step towards capitalisation. But how do they plan to capitalise on nature? ‘Mitigation banks’, as they call them, purchase the land upon which, for example, an endangered species lives and then sell shares in it. After acquiring regulatory approval, any company whose activities effect the ecosystem in question will have to purchase shares or credits from the mitigation banks in order to offset these effects. In turn, this capital is then used to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem and mitigate potential dangers.
The advantage of this approach is that it makes it more difficult for companies to ‘externalise’ the effects of production. In the absence of such a system, companies do not have to pay for polluting ecosystems as they do not have any market value: the damage to the environment that they do is just a ‘negative externality’, something for which they do not have to account.
If you are thinking that there is something cynical, perhaps sinister even, about putting a price on nature, it is with good reason. As Oscar Wilde once said (and a quote which comes up in the documentary), ‘the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’, which is to say that nature has intrinsic value to us: it is the very condition of our existence: no nature equals no oxygen, no fresh water, no food, which in turn equals no human beings.
The problem, one of the investors says, is that we have tried saving the environment because we know it’s the right thing to do and failed miserably. Therefore, we need to put a price on natural in order to better appeal to people’s sensibilities, i.e. their love of money. This is a shame because if we don’t ‘save the environment’ because it’s the right thing to do and our lives depend on it, we just won’t save it at all. We need to see saving the planet as saving ourselves and all the other species on it.
Erik Gomez-Baggethun, a Spanish academic, gives the following apt description of the broader problem with putting a price on nature: “This approach reflects the dominant ontological position in western cultures that conceive humans as beings separated from the environment…” The idea that we are separate from the environment is a result of self-consciousness: we see ourselves as ‘individuals’ that are separate from everything else around us. This conceals the fact that self-consciousness is only possible because we ‘exist’, which quite literally means, ‘standing outside’ (Ex – out, outside. Sistere – take a stand). This ‘out’ or ‘outside’ could be conceived of as ‘the environment’ in ontological terms. Martin Heidegger’s concept of existence as ‘being-in-the-world’ attempts to capture the sense for which it is a ‘unitary phenomenon’, the result of the intersection of mind and world. The separation between human consciousness and the environment makes the latter appear as an instrument of the former. The commodification of nature is essentially a result of this ‘instrumental logic’.
I don’t think that we will save the environment by finding new ways of making use of it. Rather, a fundamental shift in human consciousness is required: it is only by seeing the matter of saving the environment as an existential imperative that we will be able to do it. There is no biological life without the nature, and there is no conscious life without the environment around us.
Far from protecting the environment, monetizing it actually legitimates its degradation. Whereas before polluting the environment was an unseemly business that companies attempted to conceal, now, they can buy the right to do it legitimately.
Furthermore, monetisation puts nature at the mercy of market forces: what happens, for example, if the value of the shares crashes? Given that there is already an emerging market for derivatives based on the price of these credits, we may even see speculators essentially betting against the survival of certain species.
On the whole, Homo sapiens have done nothing but harm the environment. Our self-consciousness, we like to think, makes us special amoung all the species, but it also makes us the most dangerous, and not just dangerous to others, but dangerous to ourselves. We may wind up as the first species to affect our own extinction, and if we do, our precious self-consciousness may turn out to be an evolutionary dead end, and one that earth is better of without.
Denis Delestrac, Sandrine Feydel, Banking Nature, ARTE France, 2015.