In the summer of 2013, and following my authoring of Biodiversity Conservation, Financialisation and Equity: Some Currents and Concerns for the Third World Network (TWN), I was nominated by TWN to speak at the 7th Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity (27-31 May 2013) on what was termed a ‘high-level’ Plenary Panel on ‘Trade-offs in National Policies’. The theme of the conference was ‘Ecology and Economy for a Sustainable Society’, reframed into a backdrop proclaiming ‘ecology’ to be ‘a currency in a sustainable economy’.
Designed to enhance science-policy communications following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Trondheim Conferences on Biodiversity have been organised by the Norwegian Government and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) since 1993.
The plenary panel on Trade-offs in National Policies on the second day of the conference was moderated by Pavan Sukhdev, leader of the high-profile UN and EU programme on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). It included a daunting array of speakers in the biodiversity policy world. From left to right in the image below, are: Pavan Sukhdev; Sir Bob Watson, Co-Chair of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment; me; Edgar Selvin Pérez, Director, National Council for Protected Areas, Guatemala; Valerie Hickey, of Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES), World Bank; Nik Sekhran, UN Development Programme; Anthony Cox, Head of the Climate, Biodiversity and Water Division, OECD; and Diego Pacheco, Head of Bolivian Delegation to the CBD.
At the time of the conference, I was focused on understanding the multiple and connected discursive and organisational strategies permitting a conceptual making of nature as ‘natural capital’.
My attention the previous day of the conference had been caught by the mention by Pavan Sukhdev of the Higgs-boson, an elementary particle in subatomic physics. The story of the Higgs particle is interesting. It was first theorised in 1964, but was only tentatively confirmed to actually exist in 2012. Its existence is important in order to confirm particular models in physics. And indeed since the 1960s, immense work and resources went into finding it, including the construction of a massive particle collider at great expense and with significant environmental impact.1
The Higgs particle is now considered to be an objective fact that exists and has an effect in the world. But another way of looking at this facticity of the Higgs-Boson – i.e. its quality or condition of being a fact – is to see that it has been brought into being through all the work, resources and technical construction that permitted its observation. Indeed it might be considered that its existence as a fact in the world cannot be disconnected from these historical, technical/technological and financial dimensions.
I think that the creation of nature as ‘natural capital’ can be viewed as something similar to this drawing into focus of the fact of the Higgs particle.
In some respects ‘natural capital’ does not really exist. It is brought into being – or at least into existence as a fact – by particular ways of conceiving, measuring and valuing nature. Nonetheless, it is a way of thinking about and constructing nature that has the potential to have powerful effects in the world.
One of these effects might be the provision of numerical information that can assist with generating the sorts of accounting feedback needed to change behaviours and preferences so as to stimulate actions that are more friendly to biodiversity. Intense work is being done in this direction.
Earlier in 2013 a report providing prices for the costs of corporate impacts on what have previously been treated as environmental externalities was published by Trucost and TEEB for Business and was prominently referred to at the Trondheim Conference2. This report, however, was somewhat less candid about how exactly companies would internalise these costs and continue or perhaps discontinue their business.
The WAVES [Wealth Accounting and Valuing Ecosystem Services] project of the World Bank was also prominent at the Trondheim Conference, and seeks to assist countries to recognise the capital value of unexploited assets, including perhaps biodiversity3.
It is noticeable that these approaches seek to change behaviours by making biodiversity more visible within the current economic paradigm. This is to be achieved through economic methods that assign monetary values to aspects of nature, turn ecosystem services into work that can be priced, and construct biodiversity – the myriad breathing and living entities with whom we share earth – into a form of capital, just like any other.
This also worries me. It is a movement that seeks to demonstrate nature’s value, but within the economic and evaluative system that has devalued nature so atrociously. Is there a possibility that by making biodiversity increasingly visible to market logics we might enhance rather than reduce its exposure to market failure?
There is another connection I think it is important to make. This relates to the extent to which the economic valuing of ecosystems and biodiversity might contribute to current patterns in wealth allocations – which have a tendency towards both significant inequity, and ‘plutonomy’ – that is, to disproportionate influence by the very wealthy in society.
On the first day of the Trondheim Conference we heard a lot about poverty, and about the intentions in the UN Sustainable Development Goals being drawn up for 2015-30 to eradicate poverty. But I think we need to understand this poverty much more clearly as the mirror of extreme wealth.
Many figures exist on this relationship, but to provide a snapshot – Bloomberg Magazine reported last year that the global economy allocated US $2.7 trillion in net worth to 200 people who they describe as ‘the billionaires who pull the levers on the global economy’. [That’s an average of 3.5 billion each.] The poorest 3.5 billion people were allocated only $628 each4. A report published this year by Oxfam states that globally the incomes of the top 1% have increased 60% in twenty years. The growth in income for the 0.01% has been even greater5. This divergence in wealth seems to have intensified since the financial crisis.
These figures are concerning not least because it is obscene for such poverty to exist alongside such wealth, but because economic inequality – both between and within countries – has also been shown to be a robust predictor of rates of biodiversity loss6.
In relation to these interrelationships I hope that the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals place due emphasis on measures and mechanisms of wealth distribution as an indicator of societal progress, in the knowledge that inequality is also connected with environmental impacts.
To sum up, some questions I would like to raise are:
- to what extent does current economic valuation for ecosystems and biodiversity contribute to, or counter, unequal wealth distribution, both within and between countries?
- Is there more to say about where the appropriate boundaries of economic valuation might lie?
For example, might there be basic societal commitments to the sustenance of biodiversity, or to wealth redistribution, that are beyond pricing?7.
And how can governments be supported to enact such commitments?
- Finally, how might it be possible to more fully recognise, and also to learn from, the diverse other ways that people all over the world have lived with, known and valued other species?
On this point, cultural and linguistic diversity correlate strongly with biodiversity presence – we know this because most biodiversity hotspots and national parks tend to be located in areas of high linguistic and cultural diversity8 – both of which are sadly as threatened today as biodiversity.
Is it possible for us to create deliberative forums for listening to and learning from different ways of living with and valuing other species and ecosystems?, rather than requiring that everyone, every species, everywhere, succumb to the reductive evaluative framework of capital.
In preparing for the Plenary Panel, and in process that provided some insight into how the messages delivered on plenary panels at such major policy meetings are managed and orchestrated, panelists were asked to complete and submit an ‘aide memoire’, guided by the following three questions:
- How can public service, business and households be made aware of the meaning and values of biodiversity and of the actions they can take to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity?
- How can the biodiversity and economic planning sector assess and integrate biodiversity values and actions into national planning, poverty reduction, accounting and reporting?
- In what ways can the ecological foundation for measurements of societal progress beyond GDP be advanced?
I responded as follows:
Title of presentation –
On Evaluative Frameworks, Value Pluralism and the Wealth-Poverty-Biodiversity Nexus
Abstract Since the Convention on Biological Diversity entered into force in 1993, enormous work and resources have gone into various layers of biodiversity assessment, measurement and accounting. These have included National Biodiversity Assessments, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 and subsequent National Ecosystem Assessments, various academic analyses of biodiversity indicators, and now the move towards Natural Capital Accounting. Over the same period, there has been no reduction in the rate of global biodiversity decline. This raises questions about the relationship between measurement, assessment and accounting on the one hand, and the actions needed to prevent decline on the other.
Current measurement and accounting practices for ‘valuing nature’ are occurring within an economic calculus designed to support both biodiversity and economic growth, through voluntary internalization of new nature prices and market incentives. It is not clear, however, that such design can produce the massive changes needed to reverse or even slow down biodiversity decline, because of the strong vested interests in developments that transform habitats, damage biodiversity and displace relatively low-impact livelihoods. Given measured links between income inequality and biodiversity decline, both within and between countries globally, it also seems clear that biodiversity decline will continue in the absence of strongly redistributive policies both between and within countries.
Such trends suggest that support for biodiversity will require:
strong regulation and planning;
progressive and redistributive taxation and public service policies;
and deliberative spaces from local to global levels where plural value considerations can enter democratic decision-making regarding choices for both biodiversity and economic sustenance.
– How might the CBD process support the need for strong and collaborative regulation by well-advised governments so as to mandate the cessation of actions damaging to biodiversity?
– How can the relationship between inequality and biodiversity decline be better measured, understood and incorporated in policies that support Sustainable Development Goals and targets?
– How might poverty be understood more systematically as a relational phenomenon mirroring mega-wealth and over-consumption, and arising from socio-economic structures that impoverish both people and biodiversity?
Key discussion points and conclusions
– What are the appropriate boundaries of economic valuation and natural capital accounting? What are the contexts in which other evaluative frameworks might be more appropriate for making decisions that halt actions causing biodiversity decline?
– Is there a possibility that making biodiversity increasingly visible to market logics as ‘natural capital’ will increase rather than reduce its exposure to market failures?
Connected peer reviewed articles
Sullivan, S. 2018 Making nature investable: from legibility to leverageability in fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’. Science and Technology Studies 31(3): 47-76.
Sullivan, S. 2017 Noting some effects of fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’. The Ecological Citizen 1(1): 65-73.
Sullivan, S. 2017 Natural capital, fairytales and ideology. Invited Review Essay, Development and Change 48(2): 397-423.
Sullivan, S. 2014 The natural capital myth; or will accounting save the world? Preliminary thoughts on nature, finance and values. LCSV Working Paper 3.
- See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higgs_boson
- Trucost Plc and TEEB for Business 2013 Natural Capital at Risk: The Top 100 Externalities of Business. Formerly at http://www.teebforbusiness.org/js/plugins/filemanager/files/TEEB_Final_Report_v5.pdf.
- Fellow panelist Valerie Hickey representing the WAVES project spoke at length on the panel about this initiative
- Miller, M.G. and Newcomb, P. 2012 The world’s 200 richest men. Bloomberg Markets Magazine 1 November 2012, Formerly at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-01/the-world-s-200-richest-people.html
- Hickel, J. 2013 The truth about extreme global inequality. Aljazeera 14 April 2013, after Oxfam 2013 The cost of inequality hurts us all. Oxfam Media Briefing 18 January 2013.
- Mikkelson, G., Gonzalez, A. and Peterson, G.D. 2007 Economic inequality predicts biodiversity loss. PloS ONE 2(5): e444.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000444
- On which, see Bolivia’s ‘Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well’, in which Chapter 2, Art. 4(2) states that ‘The environmental functions and natural processes of the components and systems of life of Mother Earth are not considered as commodities but as gifts of the sacred Mother Earth’. One of the high points for me of speaking on the panel at the Trondheim Conference was meeting fellow panel member Diego Pacheco, who at the time was Head of the Bolivian Delegation to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and who gave me a copy of this Framework Law. which at the time was very new.
- See, for example, Loh, J. and Harmon, D. 2005 A global index of biocultural diversity. Ecological Indicators 5: 231–241.