Putting a price on nature could “expel” people from common lands

Turning ecosystems into commodities undermines collective ownership of natural resources, argues Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Barbara Unmüßig is co-president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and co-author of the pamphlet “Critique of the Green Economy”. She spoke to German website Schattenblick about the state of the green agenda. Here are translated excerpts from the interview.

Schattenblick: Recently you published the booklet “Critique of the Green Economy”. Do you think that your critical stance concerning green projects has deepened in recent years?

Barbara Unmüßig: Our critique doesn’t aim at green projects, it is targeted at numerous concepts for a green economy proposed by, among others, UNEP, OECD, and, most recently, the World Bank. It is my deeply held conviction that we urgently need a greener economy, or rather, a more ecological world economy. In our essay we are trying to answer the question what such a green economy may look like. Is this a paradigm shift? Is it possible to scale back our economic activity – or is it all just about “greening” existing structures?

This is what the controversy is about. I do argue that because of the limited nature of our planet and the ecological challenges facing us, we have to reconsider the fundamentals of our economy. In that respect, I think, the existing blueprints for a green economy do not go far enough.

SB: In your opening remarks at the conference [in Berlin in April] you used the term “pacified growth”. Is that something that simultaneously denotes anti-capitalism and sustainability?

BU: “Pacified growth” certainly doesn’t mean the end of capitalism. We know that growth is inherent to capitalism, and that is how it goes. It’s a law. Capital has to yield a profit and that means – especially where credit is involved – that there has to be growth and expansion. We thus have to consider how to scale down our economic activities in a way that respects the limits of our planet, with the art of restraint as part of the vision of a viable economy. In this context, people are thankfully once again trying to find new solutions. This is why there is debate about prosperity without growth; this is why there is debate about how to design a post-growth economy; this is why there is a movement for de-growth as well as a “slow movement”. There is a global renaissance of the commons. All of these are part of a search for ways to escape our present, destructive model of production and consumption.

I think this is one of the most positive developments – the re-emergence of people trying to find solutions, of pioneers who seriously think about how to get away from the constraints of the markets, the pressures for efficiency, the modes of production that deplete resources.

SB: Do you think that capitalism bears a fundamental responsibility for the degradation of the environment? Will certain precepts such as the maximising of profits have to go – or be overhauled?

BU: As I said before, capitalism as we know it today needs profits, otherwise it will be unable to pay the interest on the loans it needs for investments. How to escape from this necessity for growth, how to stay within ecological limits, that is the crucial question for the twenty-first century. And this is why I take part in and support all efforts to think about how to overcome the necessity for growth. Still, I don’t use the term “anti-capitalism” as I do not yet know what the “anti” – the opposite, the alternative – would be.

We have to reflect; we cannot act as if we knew the answer. The old answer of the Left, that nationalisation will solve the problem of private property, doesn’t lead anywhere. What’s central are social, democratic, and participative innovations – and such approaches are being shunned by policies for a green economy that promote nothing but technological solutions.

There are a number of leftist governments around the world, in Latin America and elsewhere, that have successfully implemented redistribution policies, among others Lula da Silva in Brazil. The Brazilians have managed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty in their country by 2015, yet this social redistribution that is taking place – and I cannot stress enough rightly so – is based on the extraction of resources and thus on the economic model that depletes resources, depletes the land and exploits the people. This has to be made very clear. If this weren’t the case, there would be no movements such as those of the indigenous or landless who, in Brazil, fight against this model of development that promotes redistribution by degrading the environment.

SB: Deutsche Bank commissioned Pavan Sukhdev to put so-called ecosystem services and biodiversity on a new economic footing. Don’t you think there’s a conflict of interest here? [Sukhdev worked for Deutsche Bank for 14 years before taking on the TEEB study]

BU: Deutsche Bank had released Mr Sukhdev so that he could be in charge of UNEP’s major study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity [TEEB]. I do not want to speculate about a conflict of interest – that is something you would have to ask Mr Sukhdev himself.

I think much of the criticism of the “Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” initiative is valid. A main point of contention is that this will intensify the economisation and mercantilisation of nature and environmental policies. Today there are still millions of people who make use of nature without destroying it. They don’t need new market-based approaches such as those that are now being suggested from many quarters. Shouldn’t it be possible just to leave nature alone, that is, not to extract resources from the Arctic or virgin forest areas?

Whoever puts economic principles first, thus turning ecosystems and biodiversity into commodities – or “assets” as they’re already being called – needs ownership structures to enable trade. This, unfortunately, has the effect to destroy commons, to expel and disenfranchise people.

SB: Do you know of any positive examples where such economic principles have been applied – possibly on a small scale?

BU: We’re still in the very early stages of dealing with the economisation of nature. For example, there is something Mr Sukhdev has pointed out: it might make sense to evaluate what services some ecosystems generate, especially in the case of certain accidents, let’s say shipping disasters, where an insurance company has to know how much it will cost to repair certain types of damage. This may be especially useful where ecosystems such as the oceans are involved, and here it may make sense to have bases for calculation. This is why, for some time now, economists have tried to evaluate ecosystem services.

Another attempt to evaluate ecosystem services is Ecuador’s proposition not to exploit its rainforest oil in order to preserve local habitats. This is the famous case of the Yasuni oilfields, and the slogan is “leave the oil in the soil”. Here, the question is to gauge the value of the forest for humanity against the value the oil would generate if extracted. This is a positive example and it goes to show that whenever nature is to be evaluated one has to ask: who is it good for? Who owns what? Who’s in control? Such questions point to the greater question of ownership and distributive justice.

I would like to see similar moves in Brazil concerning their offshore oil, which should not be exploited; drilling for oil underneath the seafloor, 1,800 metres below the sea, is such a risky endeavour that it should not be attempted. This is even deeper than Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico – and we know what happened there. If those offshore fields were left untouched, there would have to be calculations concerning the economic impact of not exploiting them.

SB: Isn’t it terribly difficult to make such calculations, as there are so many risk factors involved, some of which we’re not even aware of?

BU: That’s right. Unfortunately our approach is trying to find technological solutions for global environmental crises instead of considering scaled-down economic activity, savings, and doing with less – in one word: sufficiency. The point is not to claim that technology can never offer solutions; the challenge is to ask, again and again, what technologies we support and who controls them. Plus, what will be the social and environmental consequences?

What worries me is this trend to regard technology as a panacea, to make it an absolute, without ever discussing lifestyles and patterns of consumption. Many technologies are high-risk – nevertheless they are being introduced with utter recklessness. The consequences such technologies have are hardly ever being evaluated.

All governments in the [global] north, and some in the [global] south, too, spend huge amounts on research and development for high-tech solutions – instead of giving money to research into plants adapted to climate change that then may be cultivated by peasant farmers. Which, once again, poses the question: what research and for whom? Who’s helped by what technology? And who will be responsible for high-risk technologies?

This interview first appeared in German on Schattenblick. It is translated into English by Bernd Herrmann, and into Chinese by Qi Fang (奇芳).

Homepage image by Heinrich Böll Stiftung