The reality of eco-capitalism: taking conservation to market

As some green parties try eco-capitalism on for size and wonder whether it looks attractive enough to win over the voters, the business world is way ahead of them. Eco-capitalism isn’t just political theory: it has been well and truly launched. And while we are already becoming familiar with the idea of ‘emissions trading’, there is plenty more happening by way of the commodification of nature. How about the ‘ecosystem market’? Not, as you might think, a bad joke dreamt up by Ben Elton, but a real venture that is up and running. Quite honestly, I find it all a little frightening. Is this what greens are buying into?

Nevertheless, if there is anything to be gained from these markets, it may well be the opportunity to examine whether eco-capitalism really is ‘ecological’ in any meaningful sense. So let’s look at ecosystem market schemes in more detail.

Mitigation banking

In a mitigation banking scheme, the restoration or conservation of a certain area of land is commodified, ie, turned into saleable property, by the creation of conservation (or mitigation) credits. The US National Mitigation Banking Association (NMBA) explains how these credits operate in a helpful generic example, which begins by setting the scene as follows: “A private developer needs to impact 2 acres of existing wetland for commercial purposes.”

It’s a nice turn of phrase. The developer ‘needs’ (he or she apparently can’t help themselves – it’s an irresistible urge to make money) to ‘impact’ (ie, drain, build upon and destroy) the fragile wildlife habitat.

The story continues: “Once federal and state regulatory agencies have agreed that the developer cannot avoid or even minimize the effect on those 2 acres, the developer must compensate – hence, the word mitigation – for the wetlands’ loss by purchasing credits in a mitigation bank.” That is to say, everyone pretends that the credits mean the 2 acres of wetland ‘impacted’ by development are magically replaced by 2 acres somewhere else by means of a payment made for the ‘mitigation rights’ to 2 acres in the conservation project.

The reality is that we began with 4 acres of wetland and ended up with 2 acres and some houses/roads/factories/stores. There is an enormous amount of self-deception at play here, particularly in the implication that only 2 acres was ever going to be conserved, because the reality is that no-one ‘needed’ to destroy any wetland. We had a choice and we could have conserved all 4 acres. However, that was not to be: when the opportunity to turn a profit arose, all that was required to facilitate it were some friendly-sounding financial instruments.

Nevertheless, the NMBA proudly proclaims that purchasing credits “saves time and money” and “eliminates risk and responsibility” because “the credit transaction legally transfers all responsibility for mitigation of wetlands to the mitigation banker.” In other words, all blame for eco-cide is greenwashed away by a simple financial transaction.

A practical example of a mitigation credit scheme comes from International Paper (the second largest pulp and paper company in the world). International Paper has created a forest reserve on its property in Georgia, USA, where formerly isolated breeding pairs of rare red-cockaded woodpeckers have been brought together to create a permanent population. Other landowners will be able purchase “red-cockaded woodpecker mitigation credits” from International Paper (at around US$250,000 per credit) if they wish to log forest land that was formerly a woodpecker habitat; purchasing the credit frees the landowner from any further responsibility for the forest or the woodpeckers. International Paper keeps the revenue, having maintained the forest block with woodpecker breeding stock that forms its conservation bank.

According to the proponents of the project, the question for greens is “whether the risks of doing nothing” outweigh the risks of the credit scheme. That is to say, do greens collaborate with the marketisation of nature, or choose not collaborate and see all the habitats lost? When the question is put this way, the answer seems almost self-evident. Again, however, the argument turns on the idea of ‘doing nothing’ applying only to the environmentalists. What seems to have been entirely overlooked, once again, is the possibility of the landowners ‘doing nothing’ to the forests. Why can’t all the remaining forestry blocks be conserved?

Business as usual… whatever it takes

The answer to that question is clear. Doing nothing is not a viable option for hard-nosed developers and paper manufacturers, or indeed anyone in business – the very word ‘business’ is the antithesis of ‘doing nothing’. What drives business is the need to increase capital value and generate dividends for shareholders, the need to service loans, the need to generate more profits than last year, the overarching need to grow faster than the competition. Mitigation banking and conservation credits arise out of this reality, and an acceptance of the loss of half of existing wild spaces.

Ultimately, therefore, these schemes aren’t about conservation at all. They are about business as usual, whatever it takes. Eco-capitalism and its offspring – emissions trading, conservation credits, mitigation banks and ecosystem markets – are just new labels for very familiar old schemes: the enclosure of the commons, the marketisation of nature, economic growth at any cost, the commodification and exploitation of life.


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