At the Edinburgh Forums on Natural Capital and Natural Commons, 2013

From disavowal to plutonomy, via ‘natural capital’?

In Edinburgh over the next two days the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital claims that ‘a revolution is taking place in how businesses and governments account for natural capital’, and that ‘there has never been a better time for senior decision makers to exercise leadership for the benefit of business and the planet’.




Meanwhile, the counter-Forum on Natural Commons, held by an array of social movements and civil society organisations, believe that this ‘revolution’ ‘is the first step to creating financial markets in water, air, soil and forests’ thus ‘effectively privatising nature’.

counter-forum adj


This seems to be a pivotal moment in contemporary struggles over how nature is best valued, managed and allocated.

These struggles are nicely illustrated by some of the tweets tugging on the concept of ‘natural capital’:

People abuse nature if they think it is free, they’ll value it better if they see its value – @AlexSalmond #NatCap13
21/11/2013 17:25

Concept of #naturalcapital has more to do with the expansion of capitalism than sound ecological management #natcap13
21/11/2013 16:49

If CEOs and CFOs get it, things happen – @andyheald on embedding #naturalcapital accounting. #natcap13
21/11/2013 16:07

1question no longer on the table @ #natcap13 is how 2 reduce environmental impact. Why should you if you can offset it?via @counter_balance
21/11/2013 15:26

Restoring ecosystems is good but not if it ‘allows’ destruction elsewhere. So how do you pay for it? Tax the polluters #natcap13 #notforsale
21/11/2013 14:17

And so on.

In reflecting on the logics pulling this concept in different ways, I offer a few thoughts as follows.


Offsetting nature | disavowing reality1

In 1938 the pioneer of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud published a short essay entitled ‘Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence2.

In this essay, Freud asserted that in order to accommodate traumatic and dangerous reality the ego may behave in remarkable ways. In short, a defensive splitting can be effected such that the threat associated with particular behaviours is both acknowledged and systematically turned away from. Attention instead is directed towards fetishised solutions that facilitate continuation of the dangerous but satisfying behavior, at the same as constituting symptoms of the acknowledged reality of the danger that exists. Freud uses the term ‘disavowal’ to describe this simultaneous defence against and displaced acknowledgement of reality, while the creation of a fetishised substitute as symptom of the recognition of psychical trauma is referred to as a displacement or transference of value.

The insights of psychoanalytic theory increasingly are being brought to bear in understanding our human psychical relationships with current environmental crisis3. A particular intention is to shed light on the multiple defences being erected socially so as to avoid facing the trauma of the broken socioecological systems that are the fallout of modern industrial effort, and that may effect our own demise as a species.

These defences act to reduce psychic exposure to such traumas whilst permitting the simultaneous avoidance of behavioural choices that might act to reduce the trauma itself. They thereby permit continuation of the satisfactions generated by practices acknowledged to be causing danger. In this analysis, then, contemporary environmental crisis, and the violence to other species, landscapes and cultures that underpins this, is seen as causes of dangerous psychical trauma4, acknowledged precisely by transferring attention instead towards ‘solutions’ that seemingly ‘offset’ this danger.

Current systemic proposals and policies for the offsetting of environmental harm, through proliferating mechanisms such as carbon offset markets, wetland mitigation banking, species banking and biodiversity offsetting, do precisely this. They can be understood as ‘symptoms’ indicating recognition of the danger posed by the environmental harms caused by economic development and financial investment, that act as artful ways of turning away from the direct effects of this harm and its underlying causes.

In this reading then, offsets, and the market structures on which they are based, are functioning as fetishised substitutes for genuinely pro-environmental behaviour. They are fetishised as solutions to the socioecological dangers posed by capitalist ideology and practice, when instead they permit the sustenance of the satisfactions and privileges afforded through continuation of these same dangerous practices.

Thus biodiversity offsetting is proliferating in accompaniment with massive new investment in extractive industry and industrial agriculture, both of which are extremely destructive to local ecologies and cultures. This is creating a paradoxical situation in which environmental care and conservation is thoroughly development-led – paid for and managed by the corporations and structures generating the scarcity (and thus the enhanced value) of environmental health5.

Indeed, in some cases investment organisations can profit simultaneously from harms caused by investments in development and investments in conservation elsewhere. One major public financing organisation presenting at the 2013 Natural Capital Forum, for example, spoke about how financial investment in a conservation bank for biodiversity offset credits is receiving lucrative returns from the sale of these credits; whilst also requiring that investments in infrastructural development activities by the same organisation should include offsets in their environmental requirements – which in principle could be purchased from the offsets also provided by the investing company.

The defence of the collective capitalist ego (if its possible to speak of such a thing) is thereby sustained precisely through deepening the rift between acknowledged danger and the substitute ‘solutions’ that mask this danger; such that satisfying yet danger-producing behaviours can also be sustained.

In psychoanalytic terms such intensified splitting engenders conditions ripe for psychosis – for a disavowal of reality that becomes pathological. It constitutes a rejection of both the reality of development-related environmental harm and of the redress and prohibition of satisfactions that this reality suggests would be rational (reduced consumption or desisting from the harmful practices, for example).

It thus creates the artful possibility of disavowing the harm caused by corporate enterprise and global patterns of consumption, and the associated dangers for our species, as well as the other species that are our companions here on earth. It is a brilliant move that sustains the fantasy that corporate capitalism is good for nature, as well as creating opportunities for connected corporate capitalist entities to profit from conservation solutions that become fetishised substitutes for the destruction that these solutions seemingly offset.

What is in fact sustained here is the control over the global economy and the global environment vested in a closely entangled ‘super-entity’ of corporate and financial organisations and their shareholders. This is why offsetting as a solution to development engendered environmental harm is contested by social movements and civil society organisations globally.


Biocultural diversity

This deepening of the rift between acknowledged danger and the substitute ‘solutions’ that mask this danger is of concern for a number of reasons. For one, it mystifies the massive environmental destruction on which the current global political economy and its structures of investment is built.

More worryingly, it masks the time-lag of environmental debt that will, it seems, catch up with us sometime soon. This is in terms of the major pressures that will be caused by anthropogenic climate change generated by our human experiment with fossil fuel burning. It is also in terms of the lag in species extinction associated with reduced ranges and habitats.

The latter situation is addressed in part through expansionary aspirations in establishing protected areas globally, but this generates its own crises. It frequently entails the eviction of local and indigenous peoples6, or at least the significant modification of pre-existing land use and access practices.

The irony here is that frequently it is these same cultural practices that have generated the landscapes now of such value as areas to be protected for modern conservation purposes7. The associated massive loss of emplaced biocultural diversity is a tragedy not only for the cultures and peoples directly affected but for all of us who have much to learn about how to live directly with other species as living companions8 rather than as contemplated exhibits, viewed from behind protective barriers and as on-screen and dramatised natural history spectacles9.

Even these ‘protected areas’ seem not in fact to be protected when it comes to finding that they also house economically important fossil fuels and minerals. Licences have been granted for the mining of oil from under the UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve of Yasuní National Park in Ecuador (considered the most biodiverse location on the planet), the boundaries of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania have been adjusted to make way for uranium mining, and numerous other examples abound10. Not to worry though – the harms caused by these extractive developments no doubt will be ‘offset’ through both biodiversity and carbon offset investments, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief and continue with our busy consumptive lives. Of course, this is of little reassurance for the indigenous Huaorani forest communities – including Tagaeri, Taromenane, Oñamenane and Huiñatare – who live in voluntary isolation in Yasuní, and whose sustaining lifeworlds hang in the balance of decisions made in distant government and corporate boardrooms. Or for Tanzanian villagers finding that mining concessions can override pre‐existing land uses within so-called Wildlife Management Areas bordering Selous11, and who now also have to attend to the projected environmental health impacts of industrial uranium mining.

Indeed it is starting to appear as though the clearing of people from landscapes for conservation is systematically linked with the creation of cleared landscapes for industrial mining activity. In this correspondence, above and below-ground ‘natural capital’ are in competition with each other, and, it seems that only the size of the flows of capital will determine which will be invested in.

This ‘trade-off’ has been seen rather tragically in the case of Yasuní. Here, funds from the international community to ‘keep the oil in the soil’ have not materialised and, since money seemingly is the only measure of value, the choice instead is now to exploit the oil. This choice enhances biodiversity crisis, the production of CO2 emissions associated with global climate change, and control by global corporate wealth whilst demolishing local cultures with much to offer regarding how to live in long-term attunement with other species. Hence pathology.


The nature of ‘natural capital’

The remaking of nature as ‘natural capital’ enters this scene as a pragmatic metaphorical tool for increasing the value visibility of nature within the contemporary global market economy. The metaphor has a history that is coincident with the expansion of neoliberal governance forms that took hold with the Reagan-Thatcher years of the 1980s and in the wake of the Washington Consensus agreed in 1989 as the austerity-inducing guide to International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending practices.

Indeed, current usage of the term ‘natural capital’ is associated with, amongst others, the late Professor David Pearce – the environmental economist who was also economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher12.

The metaphor is powerful in its conception of ‘nature’ as a ‘stock’ of ‘assets’ producing goods and flows, or ‘ecosystem services’, as modern conservation and economic science would have it. It is considered that bringing nature as ‘natural capital’ into modern accounting and economic practices will enable nations and corporations to better recognise their natural capital wealth and thus manage this wealth for both sustainability and profit.

The whole enterprise is built on increasing the visibility of nature to capitalism, the argument being that nature has been violated because it has not been measured, costed or priced appropriately in contemporary market structures13. The utopian vision here is that capitalism will thus become better aligned with ‘nature’, so as to generate the multiple wins of a ‘green economy’ wherein economic growth is maintained and ‘natural capital’ is too.

This is a laudable vision. At the same time there is considerable slippage here between aligning capital so that it works better with ‘nature’, and conceiving of nature so that ‘it’ is better aligned with capital.

I have used the metaphor of a doubled-edged sword to describe this move that is able to cut both ways, and have suggested that there is cause for concern in current endeavours to account for nature literally as if it can behave, i.e. be put to work, as money capital.

The simple observation is that money capital is leveraged through practices that split actual stored capital so as to create more financial value and thus greater liquidity or flow of money in the system over all. These practices include: fractional reserve lending, in which the total value commanded by a bank is a vast multiplication of the value it actually houses; the splitting of debt into complex tradable packages that turn it into assets on the portfolios of ‘securities’ managers; and the management of large virtual funds of money through betting on ultimately unpredictable market probabilities.

Nature revisioned as materialised capital, i.e. as capital that is visible in financial/ised accounts, might be leveraged through similar processes. Indeed, a growing raft of financial products are being constructed so as to capitalise the ‘value’ stored in standing nature, and then to leverage this value in such a way that more money can be made14.



Notwithstanding the presence of well-meaning individuals and organisations within the natural capital nexus, there is a shadow side to the current revisioning of nature as ‘natural capital’. ‘Nature’ is being painstakingly conceptualized, abstracted and constructed such that ‘it’ is made more visible to an economic system led by concentrated wealth and power. This is a system associated not only with disrespect regarding the finely-tuned system of life within which we are embedded, but also with desperate and growing socioeconomic inequality.

Ideology aside, recent systems theory analysis by Stefania Vitali and co-authors – an analysis that considered connections and material flows between over 43,000 trans-national corporations and financial institutions – has demonstrated that the financial flows controlled by the corporate world are dominated by what they describe as a super-connected corporate ‘super-entity’15. They write that overall the global network of Trans-National Corporations and financial institutions ‘consists of many small connected components’, but the largest connected component, consisting of ‘3/4 of all nodes contains all the top TNCs by economic value’ and accounts ‘for 94.2% of the total TNC operating revenue’.

This entity of corporate and financial connections consists almost entirely of major international financial institutions, and these few organisations and associated individuals are basically able to act as a bloc to determine network control and ownership. This is indicative of extreme inequality in wealth distribution and economic control. It is also a mirror of extreme poverty which means that in 2013 the richest 200 people were calculated to have about $2.7 trillion, i.e. more than the wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion people combined (around $2.2 trillion in total or $630 per person)16.

Some of the organisations identified as part of this concentration of wealth and control have a presence at the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital taking place over the next two days in Edinburgh. It is thus tempting to see in part an interest in nature as natural capital as a new attempt by this bloc and its associates to conjure and invigorate a new frontier for capital accumulation.

In this reading then, increasing the visibility of nature as capital to capitalist enterprise means finding coherent modern methodological accounting abstractions that can create and perform nature as if it is money. It has little to do with reconfiguring human relational approaches to the embodied forms and relationships that constitute ‘nature’. For this we need to turn towards different sorts of practices based on the energetic, affective and also material exchanges that come from direct relationships with entities in themselves.

There are many routes towards such different value practices and culturenature entanglements but many seem to propose some redress and unlearning of many the Enlightenment ‘truths’ inherited in our collective cultural urge to be ‘modern’. They perhaps include,

  • recognising the socioecological benefits of commons as a coherent form of organisation based on more equal sharing and representation;
  • approaching the myriad entities that surround us with curiosity and affection (or biophilia) – understanding these to be kin rather than as disconnected and threatening ‘aliens’ to be managed and instrumentalised from afar;
  • pragmatic choices such as procuring closer to home and thereby reducing the embodied energy and other impacts of globalised production systems;
  • and generating energy from renewable sources and consuming less overall.

These pathways are indeed emphasised in the Forum for Natural Commons occurring so as to counter and contest to the Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh. The former emphasises a view that market-based solutions are not necessarily the best route towards solving market failures17. Or, as Einstein is reputed to have said, that ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them’.


Connected peer reviewed publications

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 What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology of ‘the green economy’. Journal of Political Ecology 24: 217-242, Special section entitled ‘Political Ecology, the Green Economy, and Alternative Sustainabilities’, edited by Cavanagh, C.J. and Benjaminsen, T.A.

Sullivan, S. 2014 The natural capital myth; or will accounting save the world? Preliminary thoughts on nature, finance and values. LCSV Working Paper 3.

Sullivan, S. 2011 Conservation is sexy! What makes this so, and what does this make? An engagement with Celebrity and the Environment. Conservation and Society 9(4): 334-345.

Sullivan, S. 2010 ‘Ecosystem service commodities’ – a new imperial ecology? Implications for animist immanent ecologies, with Deleuze and Guattari. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 69: 111-128, Special issue entitled ‘Imperial Ecologies’.


  1. This title echoes that used by Hannis, M. and Sullivan, S. 2012 Offsetting Nature? Habitat Banking and Biodiversity Offsets in the English Land Use Planning System. Dorset: Green House.
  2. Freud, S. 2009[1938] Splitting of the ego in the process of defence, pp. 3-6 in Bokanowski, T. and Lewkovitz, S. (eds.) On Freud’s ‘Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence’. London: Karnac Books.
  3. See especially the volume edited by Weintrobe, S. (ed.) 2013 Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge; and Fletcher, R. 2013 How I learned to stop worrying and love the market: virtualism, disavowal, and public secrecy in neoliberal environmental conservation. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31: doi:10.1068/d11712.
  4. Yusoff, K. 2012. Aesthetics of loss: biodiversity, banal violence and biotic subjects. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 37(4): 578-592.
  5. Bracking, S. 2012 How do investors value environmental harm/care? Private equity funds, development finance institutions and the partial financialization of nature-based industries. Development and Change 43(1): 271-293; Sullivan, S. 2012 Financialisation, Biodiversity Conservation and Equity: Some Currents and Concerns. Third World Network.
  6. On which see Brockington, D. and Igoe, J. 2006 Eviction for conservation: a global overview. Conservation and Society 4(3): 424-470. Also see cases documented at
  7. For further discussion see Sullivan, S. 2011 Conservation is sexy! What makes this so, and what does this make? An engagement with Celebrity and the Environment. Conservation and Society 9(4): 334-345
  8. Disussed further in, for example, Sullivan, S. 2009 Green capitalism, and the cultural poverty of constructing nature as service-provider. Radical Anthropology 3: 18-27; Sullivan, S. 2010 ‘Ecosystem service commodities’ – a new imperial ecology? Implications for animist immanent ecologies, with Deleuze and Guattari. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 69: 111-128, Special issue entitled ‘Imperial Ecologies’. Turnhout, E., Waterton, C., Neves, K., and Buizer, M. Rethinking biodiversity: from goods and services to “living with”. Conservation Letters 6: 154-161.
  9. Igoe, J. 2010. The spectacle of nature and the global economy of appearances: anthropological engagements with the images of transnational conservation. Critique of Anthropology 30: 375–397.
  10. See, for example, Büscher, B. and Davidow, V. (eds.) 2013 The Ecotourism-Extraction Nexus: Political Economies and Rural Realities of (un)Comfortable Bedfellows. London: Routledge.
  11. Noe, C. 2013 Contesting village land: uranium and sport hunting in Mbarang’andu Wildlife Management Area, Tanzania. The Land Deal Politics Initiative Working Paper 15.
  12. Pearce, D. 1988 Economics, equity and sustainable development. Futures 20(6): 598-605.
  13. E.g. see the UN/EU Programme on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).
  14. See, for example,; Cranford, M., Henderson, I.R., Mitchell, A.W., Kidney, S. and Kanak, D.P. 2011 Unlocking Forest Bonds: A High-Level Workshop on Innovative Finance for Tropical Forests. WWF Forest and Climate Initiative, Global Canopy Programme and Climate Bonds Initiative, formerly at; Cranford, M., Parker, C. and Trivedi, M. 2011 Understanding Forest Bonds: A Guide to Raising Up-front Finance for Tropical Forests.Oxford: Global Canopy Programme, formerly at; UNEP-FI and Global Footprint Network 2012 E-RISC: A New Angle on Sovereign Credit Risk, formerly at; UNEP-FI, Volans and Global Footprint Network 2011 Integrating Ecological Risk in Sovereign Credit Ratings and Investments. On issues relating to ‘materialising’ biodiversity loss as insurable risk see Dempsey, J. 2013 Biodiversity loss as material risk: tracking the changing meanings and materialities of biodiversity conservation. Geoforum 45: 41-51.
  15. Vitali, S., Glattfelder, J.B. and Battiston, S. 2011 The network of global corporate control. PLOSone.
  16. For an excellent and alarming summary of the contemporary wealth-poverty nexus, see 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.
  17. Büscher, B. 2012 Payments for ecosystem services as neoliberal conservation: (reinterpreting) evidence from the Maloti-Drakensberg, South Africa. Conservation and Society 10: 29-41.

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