Putting a price on nature would be disastrous

Plans to apply market values to forests and waterways to protect them could lead to the destruction of everything nature gives us
By Nick Dearden, originally appeared on the Guardian on 27/11/2013
A spoof ‘Great Nature Sale’ protest at the Edinburgh meeting of the World Forum on Natural Capital. Photograph: Colin Hattersley

As UN climate negotiations rumbled on in Warsaw, big business came together with conservation groups in Edinburgh last week at the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital to put a price on nature.

The idea goes back to the Rio+20 conference in 2012, when a group of investorsdrafted the natural capital declaration. It argues that if we price everything nature gives us (wildlife, plants, forests, waterways, pollination, you name it), companies would think twice before destroying them.

Like advocates of the market for more than 200 years, the drafter of the declaration cannot abide the idea of “the commons” – commonly held resources whose reproduction and use is not subject to the laws of finance. The English enclosures, starting around the 15th century, and the Scottish clearances, from the 18th century, turned most common land in our country into private property, generating the profits that fed the Industrial Revolution.

In its quest for new markets today, finance is again intent on privatising the “global commons”. The first step, as is clearly expressed in the natural capital declaration, is to start thinking of the environment as if it were capital, and to price it accordingly.

Surely few of the conservation groups gathered in Edinburgh last week would welcome the wholesale selling-off of nature. But either through desperation at the scale of the environmental crisis, or in ignorance of the political implications of the project, many are going along with this first step of putting a price on nature.

As one delegate told me: “We’re just trying to value nature better.” Ironically, it took an investment professional to point out the dangers that seemed to have escaped so many NGOs. “Be very careful,” he warned. “Once you put a price on nature in order to protect something, you will find someone will pay that price in order to destroy it.”

Even for market specialists, pricing nature is no easy task, as a representative of a French investment bank told the Edinburgh forum when explaining the problems of trying to compare different species. Butterflies seemed to cause him particular difficulty, as it’s tough to track how many of them are flying around.

But the benefits of doing so became clearer when a former head of Puma told us: “Yes I fly a lot, but by the end of my life I hope I will have had a ‘positive net impact’ on the planet.” The logic runs, it doesn’t matter how much damage you do, as long as you make up for it by investing in some good deeds elsewhere.

For a frequent flyer, you can buy an offset that funds forest plantation. A market in nature would allow a mining company to keep destroying the environment in Bolivia as long as it supports a green and pleasant land somewhere in South Africa.

Leaving aside the difficulty of creating species to replace the ones you’ve wiped out, this also means imposing property rights on land being used by the people in that paradise, who you might have to turf off their land. But that is also beneficial to investors, because you’ve just expanded the potential commodity markets. What’s more, you have bought an indulgence and your sin is wiped out – so you no longer need to focus on reducing your environmental destruction.

To grasp the absurdity of the argument, consider setting up a financial market in human rights crimes. Presumably, if I want to torture or murder one group of people in one place, I could do this as long as I invest in protecting – or simply not harming – a group of people somewhere else. Maybe I could buy a credit from Amnesty International.

This is great news for the likes of Rio Tinto, whose representatives treated us to a presentation about a beautiful project it is working on in Australia. We didn’t see, and no one thought to ask, about the destructive mining it was also engaged in, which this project supposedly makes acceptable. It’s not relevant. What’s important is Rio Tinto’s “positive net impact” on the world.

This is about much more than greenwash. Because the “good” activities have a mirror in the “bad” activities in the market, the more good stuff you do, the more bad stuff you can also do. More butterflies in Italy means you can mine more in Bolivia. Meanwhile, financiers will make a killing betting on whether a butterfly species will die out, allowing you to hedge your risks.

Many people asked me: “So what’s your alternative then?” I recommend removing finance from the world, rather than promoting it. Five years after financial markets and their “innovative” products sent the global economy into a tailspin, few people outside the political establishment would put them in charge of our environment.

A packed counter-forum in Edinburgh, organised by the World Development Movement and other campaign groups, attracted several participants from the official event. This forum heard that people on every continent are reclaiming the commons from finance – re-municipalising water, supporting the food sovereignty movement, setting up local, renewable energy schemes. Anyone claiming to want a better world should be betting on them, rather than on the market.

‘Managing the Risks’ event at the Scottish Parliament

eveLast year at the Forum on Natural Commons there was a call from people in Scotland to resist the financialisation of nature.

Now the Scottish Parliament is listening at this event:

Natural Capital – Managing the Risks
The Scottish Parliament
Tuesday 28 January 6-8pm

Patrick Harvie MSP and Jamie Hepburn MSP are jointly hosting the event which they hope will be an open and frank discussion on the topic of natural capital involving a wide range of interested parties including MSPs, the business community and NGOs.

Jonathan Hughes (Scottish Wildlife Trust and IUCN Councillor) and Nick Dearden (World Development Movement) will be debating some of the key issues, followed by questions and discussion from the floor.

This event is free but registration is strictly mandatory. You can register by clicking here. You are advised to arrive 30 minutes early to give time to register and complete any security checks required.

Solidarity with Edinburgh from La Paz, Bolivia


Activists in La Paz took action in solidarity with us in Edinburgh to mark the Forum on Natural Commons.

They have been taking part in a conference on “Commons and new civilisatory paradigms” this week and took time out of their discussions on Wednesday to bring us a message of solidarity. You can read more about their work on their Facebook page.

We hope to share photos and talks from tonight’s Forum event in Scotland over the next few days.  Stay in the discussion at #notforsale.

Message from Edinburgh to Warsaw

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A big thank you to everyone who took part in last night’s Forum on Natural Commons. We had a fantastic evening joined by Brazilian activist Camila Moreno and our keynote speakers from around the UK and shared food and ideas.

At the end of the evening we gathered together to send a message of solidarity from Scotland to activists in Warsaw defending nature at the the UN climate talks.

Scottish Parliament action: Nature not for Sale


A motion has been proposed to the Scottish Parliament by MSP Patrick Harvie concerned that putting a price on the environment is the first step towards turning it into a commodity to be traded on financial markets.

We want to make the case to the Scottish Parliament that turning wildlife, forests, mountains and soil into commodities won’t protect nature.

If you live in Scotland you can write to your MSP now by using the e-action on the WDM website by clicking here.

…Meanwhile at the EICC


As we make our last preparations for tonight’s ‘Forum on Natural Commons’ the World Forum on Natural Capital has also begun at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

First Minister Alex Salmond will make the keynote speech at the conference, while corporations including RBS, Coca Cola, Rio Tinto and KPMG will be attempting to put a value on nature so that they can include it in their balance sheets.

Some corporations and governments, including the UK, claim that if the natural world is given a financial value it is more likely to be protected. But campaigners from the World Development Movement, Counter Balance, Re:Common and Carbon Trade Watch believe this is the first step to creating financial markets in water, air, soil and forests, effectively privatising nature.

In protest activists from the World Development Movement dressed as dodgy salesmen have been offering to sell Ben Nevis to the highest bidder outside the EICC (photos here).  Loch Ness is also up for sale on eBay.

Members of our organisations have been inside the EICC today and you can follow their thoughts on Twitter at #notforsale.  They will also be attending the Forum on Natural Commons tonight to share their reflections the other conference.  Registration is now closed: for those who can’t attend in person we hope to provide a live stream of the evening.

Forum on Natural Commons – This Thursday

Web poster by Jon Lander, click it to download and share on #notforsale

As delegates arrive in Edinburgh the great nature sale has already begun online with Ben Nevis going for a song on ebay.  Have you put your bid in yet?

Supporters, speakers and organisers for tomorrow’s Forum on Natural Commons are also arriving coming from 14 organisations from across the Europe.  We’ve also heard that we’re being joined by Brazilian activist Camila Moreno by video link from the UN climate change talks in Warsaw.

If you haven’t yet booked you’ve only a few hours to do so and spaces are limited.  We hope you’ll us.

Workshop this evening; Final Forum Speakers Announced

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Our week of action and events is kicking off this evening with the Introductory Workshop at the University of Edinburgh.  Spaces are still available and you can find out more on the workshop page.

Meanwhile final details of Thursday’s Forum on Natural Commons are announced with Cllr. Maggie Chapman (pictured, centre) confirmed as moderator and Morag Watson (pictured, left), Common Cause confirmed as our final speaker.

We’re also nearly ready to unveil our new photo exhibition which will be open to view over dinner at the Forum.

The conversation is getting started online and offline.  Join in on Twitter at #notforsale.