Call to put ‘a price on nature’ may be appealing – but misunderstands what’s at stake

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“When [a] crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the idea that hangs around.

Nowhere has Milton Friedman’s maxim been applied more forcefully than in matters of the environment. When scientists first sounded the alarm about global warming in the late 1980s, the ideas “hanging around” all related to neoliberalism. As a result, mainstream climate action has prioritized free market mechanisms, with disastrous results.

Now, as nations gather in Montreal for the Cop15 talks on biodiversity, 119 scientists and other experts have published an open letter warning of what they call “a neoliberal agenda hidden behind keywords happy and meaningless”.

Related: What does “positive nature” mean – and can it rally support to halt biodiversity loss?

By this they mean, in particular, the expression “positive nature”, a term promoted by the World Economic Forum, the European Commission, the WWF, pressure groups and many individual governments. In Australia, the rhetoric has found its way into the government’s new environmental law review, a document titled Nature Positive Plan: Better for the Environment, Better for Business.

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There is no single definition of ‘positive nature’, with one study suggesting that 10 organizations using the term all define it differently.

Yet it’s a slogan commonly associated with a monetary valuation of the natural world – and that’s what worries the letter’s signatories.

The call to put “a price on nature” may appeal even to environmentalists, who hope it could force companies that treat the Earth as worthless to write its degradation on their balance sheets.

But that ignores what is at stake.

To exploit nature’s markets, technocrats and economists must separate an ecology into its component parts and then assign values ​​to those aspects deemed worthy of protection.

In an article for The Conversation, academic John Henneberry explains how when we value nature:

We apply numbers to features that we consider important, or that are measurable, or both, and we ignore or exclude other features that do not meet these criteria. […] As a result, nature appears more fragmented because we have to cut it into categories and cut those categories into pieces before we can evaluate pieces of those pieces. The sum of these parts falls far short of the whole and fails to capture the interconnectedness and holism of nature.

In a context where it is not even known how many unique species exist on the planet (estimates range from 5.3 million to 1,000 billion, of which only 1.6 million are identified and named), author Adrienne Buller describes as an extraordinary fantasy the notion that “the biosphere can be easily segmented and ‘unbundled’ into discrete units which can then be individually assessed, speculated and traded, entirely abstracted from the specifics of time and place”.

This is a point also made in the open letter, which insists:

The monetary values ​​produced do not represent the value of nature’s ecological functions, not even an approximation. Yet misleading figures are not better than nothing, but worse than nothing, as they can lead to bad policy decisions with irreversible consequences. Monetary valuation of the ecological functions of nature can also give a dangerous and misleading illusion of substitutability between critical ecosystem functions, where it is wrongly assumed that as long as the total monetary value remains stable, nature is in good condition.

Substitutability is invariably the goal of environmental pricing: by turning the unique components of a biosphere into abstractions as exchangeable as dollars or euros, it facilitates processes such as compensation, so that destruction in one place can be “compensated” by investments elsewhere.

Related: “Green Wall Street” in Australia will not save the planet. Markets Value Profits, Not Platypus | Richard Dennis

Commodification also has implications for governance, taking environmental decisions away from the public and placing them instead in the invisible hand of the market.

“[T]the idea that finance would have a key role to play [in respect of the environment]“, says the letter, “is a very specific policy framework that empowers private finance actors – who can then dearly negotiate their participation – while minimizing the power of governments to put in place appropriate regulations”.

Given the glaring relationship between profit and extinction (think logging companies clearing the Amazon), you might wonder about the mental gymnastics required to present financialization as an alternative to immediate government regulation.

Think of Tanya Plibersek’s promise to create a “Green Wall Street” in Australia based on the exchange of “nature credits”. For many, entrusting fragile and irreplaceable ecosystems to international trade seems bizarre.

As George Monbiot once said, by integrating the environment into the global marketplace, “you are effectively pushing the natural world even further into the system that is eating it alive.”

Yet political theorist Philip Mirowski reminds us in Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste of one of the great commandments of neoliberalism that any perceived problem raised by markets can and must be solved by other markets.

COP15 ends on Monday. Yet, whatever his decision, we cannot base our response on lying around. We need ideas that work.

It means recognizing that real environmental solutions depend on the decommodification of nature, not its opposite.

• Jeff Sparrow is a Guardian Australia columnist

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