Nature™ Inc off to a good start

Inclusive Economy01 Jul 2011Bram Büscher

Finally, after a year of preparations, the Nature™ Inc Conference started today! This conference, held at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in the Hague, seeks to critically engage with the market panacea in environmental policy and conservation in the context of histories and recent developments in neoliberal capitalism. The conference is steeped in traditions of political economy and political ecology, in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of where environmental policies and conservation in an age of late capitalism come from, are headed, and what effects they have on natures and peoples.

It was absolutely wonderful to finally see the over 200 participants from all over the world arriving at the ISS this morning. Immediately there was this amazing energy in the air. Participants seemed to be excited and many told me they had really been looking forward to the conference. The first point on the agenda today was a keynote by professor Nancy Peluso, from the University of California. Her talk was titled: What’s Nature got to do with it?

Historicizing the relations between “Beauty” and “The Beast”. I really liked the way she used this metaphor to explain and indeed historicize the many different (but always social!) relations between nature and capitalism. Taking rubber as small-holder cash crop and mode of production as her example, I think she did a great job showing how we came to the current socio-environmental predicaments that we are in.

Unfortunately I could not stay for the whole talk, as Prem Radhakishun came around in his big yellow American schoolbus-turned-radiostation to interview me for Premtime. I loved chatting to Prem. He can be incredibly sharp and ironic, but I love a good debate, and think we had a good one. Listen here and see if you agree (broadcast in Dutch)!

One of the things Prem asked me is whether capitalism isn’t like nature itself: survival of the fittest. While he was pushing me (and actually agreed with me!) I felt it was an interesting point, as it is used very often by people to ‘naturalize’ the current system that we are in, which also relieves them of any duty to think about change. My answer was that animals normally don’t kill any more prey when their bellies are full. Capitalists, on the other hand, are never ‘full’: they always need more money, more growth, more TVs, more.. pretty much everything. We simply cannot go on like that.

But as some of the other panel sessions that I attended showed, this is exactly what is still happening (for the time being). Professor Kathleen McAfee from the US, for example, showed that ‘payments for environmental services’ has become a popular new tool for conservation: paying (often poor) people to take care of nature so that its services (fresh air, clean water, pollination, etc) can be sold to those who pollute, destroy nature or wish to consume it. She argued that this process has led to a further entrenchment of global inequalities, as the global North abuses the global South in trying to ‘off-set’ the environmental problems it should take responsibility for itself.

Professor Mike Hannis from the UK talked about ‘biodiversity offsets’, and showed how in England people can off-set their destruction of nature by buying credits that guarantee the conservation or restoration of nature elsewhere. What I found particularly interesting is that the UK government admitted they could not really measure what they call ‘units of biodiversity’, and therefore use proxies, which pretty much come down to acreage. Habitat = biodiversity? Sounds like a strange proposition to me.

I also presented myself today in a session with Jim Igoe and Sian Sullivan. All three of us presented a part of what we call ‘Nature on the Move’, or how nature is being taken up as globally circulating capital, and how to understand this. We had a great debate after the presentations, which really energized me even more.

Tomorrow we’re going on a fieldtrip to the Oostvaardersplassen, so I will certainly write more about that..