Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Monetizing Nature"
I would like to highlight a few observations that have struck me while following this discussion sparked by Barbara Unmüßig’s paper and while preparing a discussion paper myself.
(1) Many insist that valuation, on one hand, and monetization and commodification, on the other, are different conceptions that should not be conflated. The act of describing something in economic terms and assigning an economic value to it does not automatically involve commodification or pricing. The political question, however, would seem to be not whether economic framing and valuation of “nature” logically entails commodification, but whether it encourages it in practice. The economic figures produced by the methodologies, mapping exercises, statistical reporting, etc.—and more importantly, the idea that such figures have intellectual standing—are not ivory tower abstractions. They will be used in the context of the currently predominant politics of power that favor privatization and economic growth at the great ecological, social, and economic cost we all know too well. Processes that appear, or can be presented as, separate, distinct, and isolated actually co-evolve, interact, and reinforce one other. In her paper, Unmüßig warns of the slippery slope from economic valuation to commodification. I would argue that looking at how the debate around economic valuation of “nature” has evolved over the past two to three decades, and considering the context of the financialized world that currently shapes political decisions and policymaking, the economic and monetary valuation of ecosystem services slope will be so slippery that once on that path, the sliding into commodification and pricing will be inevitable.
The mapping of Siam by British surveyors that Thongchai Winichakul describes in his book Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation offers an interesting parallel. Western mapping techniques deployed over a century ago did not inherently constitute a land grab or express new kinds of nationalism or colonialism. However, had Siam not been mapped using the relevant methodologies and norms of Western cartography (as opposed to those that had previously been used in Siam) and had those norms not been adapted defensively by Thai elites for their own purposes, it would have been more difficult for the British and French colonial powers to gain control over large swaths of what are now Burma and Cambodia.
(2) Over the years, I have trawled through dozens of documents that explained the economic calculations used for pricing in “payment for environmental services” and offset schemes, both for carbon and for biodiversity. The initially most surprising observation was this: even where elaborate measurements in the field and subsequent entering of that data into complex calculations had yielded a set of figures on the basis of which a monetary value for the subset of “ecosystem services” relevant for the particular PES program had been determined, the price offered in the PES program or offset project bore little semblance to the monetary value calculated—with great effort and at large expense—for the relevant “ecosystem services.” The actual level of payment was usually determined from a mixture of project implementation costs, costs for alternative options (e.g., in the case of payments for water regulation, the cost of a water treatment plant), available CSR funds or government program budgets and 'willingness to pay' surveys, or the price for which the “service” could be bought on secondary markets (carbon). As mentioned above, this was true even when economic figures were available for the respective “ecosystem service” in the given location. Why was this so? Perhaps one explanation lies in the fact that the economic valuation that was done—notwithstanding the limitations and inherent flaws involved that have been mentioned by many in this stream of discussion—came up with numbers than far outstripped the available CSR or government program budgets.
(3) There is an argument that some economic valuation of “ecosystem services” is useful in lawsuits or official negotiations over compensation packages. Unmüßig refers to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as one such example where judges, or negotiators for communities seeking compensation from companies or government agencies, might benefit from better information about the economic value of the land they lost or the damage caused to “nature.” But would more detailed assessments of the economic value of the “nature” in question really contribute to a better outcome? A monetary figure has different meanings in different contexts. In most justice systems, a fine is not understood to be a certain amount of money that has to be paid to close out, once and for all, an interaction between perpetrator and victim. Instead, it is merely one symbolic moment in a process that may include acknowledgement of moral or legal wrongdoing, an apology, further reparations, imprisonment, ongoing obligations, and so forth. It would seem to be that the issue is not the economic “accuracy” of the fine (even if this could be determined—which is impossible), but rather its place in a larger, socially accepted scheme of reckoning. Thus the claim that “economic valuation” is a way of setting penalties or compensation payments more “accurately” may risk damaging the legal and moral fabric that helps hold a legal system or a society together. Such hard figures might be given more weight than non-monetary aspects of the legal system, and the polluter might increasingly be able to claim that the case was closed with the payment—another slippery slope where the slow slide down towards the unintended side-effects can already be observed.
I conclude with the two considerations that held most weight in convincing me that economic valuation is a great risk that will hinder rather than help bring about the transformational change needed. First, we can see the application of economic valuation in the real world and the damage that application has in far too many cases already done to communities who depend on and defend their territories against outside decisions that will destroy the land that provides them with a livelihood.
And finally, adopting someone else’s frame—the frame that sees “nature” in a way that capital does—by default requires devaluing and undermining the values we (used to) consider worth fighting for. That would likely entail losing moral authority and legitimacy, at least over time. Adopting the concept of economic valuation means adopting the values of actors whose business model is built on limitless growth and the associated wrecking of “nature”—and many people's livelihoods.