Rio+20: the pitch for global commodification

Nothing even resembling binding agreements, pledges or treaties connected with the Earth’s environmental plight emerged from the Rio+20 Earth Summit – just a “declaration” from the vast bureaucracy that wasn’t even discussed, STEVE DRURY writes.

What we are left with is the idea of “green economics”, which amounts to the commodification of natural resources.

There were 45,000 people at the Summit, held on 20-22 June – the 20th anniversary of the original Earth Summit in 1992 – but they included very few leading politicians. The UK, for example, was represented by the ineffectual deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who managed a jungle safari. Anger centres on the patent absurdity of assembling such a throng for nothing.

Fred Pearce, doyen of British eco-journalists and environment consultant to New Scientist magazine, isn’t happy, as he made clear in its editorial of 30 June 2012.

Pearce bemoans the inertia on “sustainability”, noting that “we can and must harness [market forces] to reignite the aspirations of 20 years ago”, i.e. the unfulfilled outcomes of the original Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. (The necessary spark went out long ago, as previously noted on People & Nature here and here.) LINK

Pearce believes “green economics” to be the only hope, to pull the planet out of the mess created by capital – and expands on it in a longer article in the same issue of New Scientist.[1]

The essence of “green economics” is somehow to express the environment in terms of “natural capital”. Its promoters believe that such quantification of environmental change and making it an entry in bookkeeping and accountancy will compel “decision-makers” to avoid ecological damage through the prospect of monetary loss should it occur.

There is a point missed here: capital and value are not products of negotiation or legislation, but of the global market, fundamentally the commodity sector. For the market, destruction of tropical rainforest for biofuel crops, creating lifeless zones in the oceans through overfishing, releasing pollutants from gigantic mines and turning the climate into a greenhouse through burning coal and petroleum already have values: commodities from them that enter global trade.

Those values are not sneezed out of the noses of traders on market floors, but from the generalised human labour expended in bringing commodities to market.

There is no trade without a profit (surplus labour) and the sole aim of capital (accumulated dead labour) is to maximise the rate of profit so that capital enlarges itself.

Accounting for a notion of value/capital in the natural world has no real meaning. But artificially creating a “tariff” for different parts of nature no doubt can be done, with difficulty yet considerable cunning – as shown by the trillions of dollars worth of fictitious capital slurping around the global economy in the form of financial derivatives, some based on unpayable debt.

Factoring fictitious “green capital” into the debit column of the world market would inescapably drive down the rate of profit, forcing globalised capital deeper into crisis. Of course, individual speculators in “green capital” might profit enormously, as some do from credit default swaps and laundering the proceeds of crime.

Unsurprisingly, many environmentalists are not impressed by commodification of all of nature.

Some have mockingly put major forests, lakes and animal species up for auction on eBay, only to have them delisted (see here for example) … but the campaign by “green capital” pundits – and the UK and other governments – coincides with huge tracts of land used for millennia by indigenous people and small farmers being sold or leased off to speculators and entrepreneurs, especially in Africa.

Another means to exploit nature takes the form of financial instruments derived from artificial valuation of ecosystems, already established in the US for wetlands, in the form of “wetland banks”. Persuasive pitches are rife in this field, following roughly the pattern of commodification of global warming through trading in “carbon credits”.[2]

One scam that has been growing rapidly – for instance in South Africa and Peru, as well as in the EU – is speculation in clean water through privatising water utilities and driving up water-supply tariffs. The Chief Economist of Citibank, William Butler, has commented:

I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years… Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments — puts, calls, swaps — both exchange-traded and OTC [over-the-counter] will follow.

Among the throngs at Rio+20 were senior executives from many transnational companies eager for public-private partnerships, egged on by the chairman of the Bank of America. That alone should be a warning of things to come.

[1] Fred Pearce, “2012 Earth Summit: give nature a cash value”, New Scientist 30 June, pp. 10-11.

[2] See The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) website  that was set up to promote ‘green capital’ at Rio+20. TEEB is hosted by the UN Environment Programme with financial support from the European Commission, Germany, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Japan.

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One Response to Rio+20: the pitch for global commodification

  1. […] speculation, as at the Rio+20 summit in late June 2012. (See People & Nature comment on that here.)  Most appeal to “decision makers” to take notice, when the abstract noun “development” […]

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