Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pavan Sukhdev: Natural Capital

This is as concise and data-filled argument as you'll ever see for green accounting and the counting of natural capital.  It's Pavan Sukhdev giving a TED talk, and it's only 16 minutes, well worth your time.

I find two things fascinating:
1) Sukhdev's obvious slant away from the first-world financier's view that tends to dominate global carbon discussions.  He is openly scolding the world for deciding that coral reefs are disposable (in setting a carbon limit above 350ppm), and openly suggesting that bioprospecting should reward local poor communities rather than the prospectors or the host nation.  Sukhdev is, essentially, a reformer of development and a believer that global capital should be subordinate to the public sphere.  This puts him on the far left of the current stage on which ecosystem services discourse plays out.

2) Sukhdev got into this biz through a project of trying to steer the Indian state away from mimicking Chinese-style growth.  This positions his contributions as a kind of postcolonial project in origin (and likely feeding off of the long postcolonial intellectual tradition in Indian political economics), asking the question: how should the Indian state move beyond a colonial world of Eurocentric economies?  How does India become an economic pole in its own right?  Sukhdev's answer was different than the answer of many in India, but still it's apparent that the Natural Capital approach was initially a useful tool in waging a debate over Indian economic strategy, not the kind of grail in its own right that it has been to environmental economists in the US and Europe since the 1970s.

The biggest tell is his repeated commitment to describing global resources as "public" and "common".  This reveals the tension between valuation and marketization -- it is possible to argue for the economic valuation of public goods without calling for their commodification and sale, and defending their identity as public, indeed defending the commons.  This could not be more opposed to Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons, the argument which most natural capitalism talk takes as foundational.

Let me be clear, I find all of this encouraging and it makes me more appreciative of Sukhdev and the internal complexity of dialogues about natural capital.  It is possible that what we've got here is just the latest iteration in the conflict between index-makers and price-theory marginalists that we've seen play out ever since Costanza's article.  In that, I'm not sure we've moved beyond the standard script:

Price theorist: "You say you want to value nature, but the only sure way is to observe price in a clearing market.  To say otherwise is an unforgivable economic heterodoxy."
Index theorist: "Ok, but markets create social inequities and perfect information is always lacking in environmental commodities. Reforming GDP and balance sheets is a good place to start to achieve developmental goals".
Price theorist: "So you're saying markets are incapable of creating optimal social welfare?  Communist."

The problem for people like Sukhdev is that it's very, very hard to make the kinds of arguments he's making without heading down the road toward anti-capitalism.  He just said, essentially, that markets do not produce desirable results, that the commons must be preserved, and that the welfare of low-income people should be given special attention through institutional design.  To believe these things are compatible with capitalism requires a kind of willful averting-of-eyes from the laws of capital.  Natural Captalists, then, tend to be those who believe that these laws can be held in abeyance for certain times in certain places, without damage to the overall thing called "capitalism."  And of course the jury's still out on that.

Are we still panicking over 7 billion, or was that yesterday?

It was fun to see the predictable rollout of "OMG 7BN" rhetoric in the media last October followed by the  pushback by the weird combination of hyper-capitalists and leftists, both of whom have traditionally rejected the kind of Malthusian talk about limits to human ingenuity that has been part of environmentalism since the 1960s.  But that all ended pretty quickly, no?  Time to gear up for the 8 billion panic... it's just around the corner!

But I thought I'd round up some of the saner thoughts, for my own edification (and the teaching of introductory geography courses).  First let's start with a keystone quotation from David Harvey:
The political implications of a term like overpopulation can be devastating.  Somebody, somewhere, is redundant, and there is not enough to go around.  Am I redundant?  Of course not.  Are you redundant?  Of course not.  So who is redundant?  Of course!  It must be them.”
Ok, so there's the real question.  It was not hard to find image after image after image of brown people accompanying the 7 billion stories.  It wasn't subtle... there are too many brown people.  Hell, at you can even buy carbon credits by paying for family planning in Africa.  That's right -- let that sink in.  By paying to ensure that there are fewer brown people in the world, you can drive your SUV without adding to atmospheric carbon.

The obvious critique is that it's not, per capita, the brown people who are using most of the resources. 

Nonetheless, NPR went all Malthus on us, as did The New Yorker Magazine. The dependably liberal talk show On Point was flooded with Volvo-driving hand-wringers.

The Guardian fired back, twice, highlighting consumption, and NPR reconsidered its own reportage with a teachable moment on the dignity of individual lives that are often grouped together as "excess people". Even the High Country News weighed in.  And at least some people are making a class-based argument (Occupy Malthus?) about population.

But as my friend Eric Carter has pointed out, it's very easy to lob spitballs at Malthusians... it's much harder to explain how we decouple economic growth from resource use such that the development of a country doesn't lead to more severe per capita impacts on global resources.  The alternative is to celebrate poverty, or still to blame the poor in their millions for the problem. Unless affluence doesn't always lead to higher consumption?

The UN Population Fund has started a webpage devoted to telling the story of the march to 7 billion, while remaining rather agnostic on who is to blame.  Those peacekeepers, always turning the other cheek.

The Economist took the classic old-school liberal (not American liberal) line that more people is better because more human ingenuity is better.  And the BBC gave us something fun to do on the internet by figuring our population number -- I, for example, was the 3,767,313,699th person alive on earth when I was born, and the 77,947,989,929th  person alive in the history of the planet.  (I'm just imagining the poor neanderthal who just missed out being #1.  Didn't evolve fast enough, poor bastard.)

So what should we take from all of this?

Look, there are really two answers: Firstly, to paraphrase an economics professor of mine, if you think resource depletion comes from overpopulation, you probably think milk comes from bottles.  Focusing on the number is the easy way to avoid thinking about deeper causes of shortages and inequality.  Secondly, the thing that none of these sources is getting is that there is NO single, global problem called "overpopulation".  Rather, the question has been posed and answered at a global level because we have convenient global datasets at hand -- we look for the answer where the data is, not where the answer is (the old lost-quarter under a lamppost scenario). 

In any given setting, however, people use resources or abuse them for far more complex reasons than the fact that they exist as part of a 7-billion-large crowd.  I mean, you didn't leave the light on in the hallway overnight because there are 7 billion people, you left it on because your 5-year old daughter is afraid of the dark.  Things are complicated: In some settings, depopulation has been shown to cause environmental degradation; in others, populations are static but resource conservation depends on political or cultural features.  These cases are so numerous that it's a wonder anyone pays attention to the aggregate number.  The Geographer's answer -- or this one's, at least -- is to deny that a term like "overpopulation" is meaningful or useful, and instead to ask only about specific cases and situations in which the relationships between people and resources can actually be studied and resolved.

Unrelated but of great historical interest: James Madison, Conservationist?

*many thanks to the Cultural and Political Ecology listserv contributors for bringing my attention to most of these links.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ocean's 350ppm, starring George Clooney

Any criminal conspiracy that unfolds inside a French discotheque pretty much demands to be turned into a screwball heist comedy.

Also, NB: "It wasn't a REAL financial market, so there wasn't any REAL risk of losing the money you'd invested."  This statement about the European carbon market is worth meditating on.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ecological Restoration given its raison d'etre: Ecosystem Services

That sound you hear is the sound of thousands of academics cleaning their offices and finding the long-lost surfaces of their desks.

It's that time of year -- those magical weeks when we actually have enough time to answer email from October, return peer reviews a month overdue, and, in my case, get back to blogging.  The semester overwhelmed me just at the point when the "7 billion" panic was hitting its stride (remember that?) in late October, and although I have a longer post planned for that, I thought I'd reboot with just a few tidbits in the news recently.

This little video on the relationship between ecosystem services and environmental restoration is short and is actually beautifully efficient at showing us how ecosystem services policy fits into the long 20th century of policy addressing resource exploitation, overpopulation, and development.  It's a lecture by Dr. Thomas Elmqvist at Yale in their series on TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity).  The following steps have applied to all problems of environment and development since -- oh, let's say the 1950s.  I'm open to revision on that.  But the three-legged stool of most environmental crisis stories is present:

1) As I've written elsewhere, the first step in the management of the environment as sets of service commodities is the creation of a taxonomy so that you know -- and can name -- what you're looking at and trying to manage.  This is where Dr. Elmqvist starts.

2) From taxonomy he moves quickly to overpopulation: the justification for intervening is, at first cut, Malthusian.

3) Lastly, he presents global resource mapping (in this case, a worldwide map of soil degradation) as evidence of the crisis of overpopulation.  We political ecologists have long critiqued the management-by-satellite strategies of global resource managers: we tend to find answers instead on the ground in human interactions. This is a case of the sin of "scaling parsimony," described by Matt Turner (full disclosure: my dissertation advisor).  That is, people tend to look for data and solutions at the same scale at which the problem is defined: population is thought to be a global problem, so we tend to use world-spanning datasets to find answers.  Not always helpful.  But very, very common.

4) The last step is actually newer: the suggestion that ecological restoration is the solution to a crisis newly-defined as one of "ecosystem service provision" (rather than simply overpopulation or soil degradation).  This is becoming common as well over the past 10 years: ecological restoration has gone from a hobby science practiced by retirees and rogue ecologists to a global technology of production -- it lacked only the object "ecosystem services" to give it purpose and direction.  In the mid 1990s, the ecological restoration community was wracked by debates about what, exactly, was to be restored: "authenticity"? "ecological integrity"? "ecologies circa 1492"?  "resilience"?  "culturally-appropriate landscapes"?  These debates had no answer, and appeared incredibly esoteric from the outside.  But now the simple nostrum that "ecological restoration produces ecosystem services" has realigned much of the field of restoration ecology on a sometimes-implicit economic and utility-focused footing.  As Dr. Almqvist says, his definition of "restoration" avoids doctrinal debates about authenticity:

"So this is a very pragmatic definition, that you're not including any specific target -- that you are restoring to certain condition that happened to be at that area 100 years ago or 200 years ago.  This pragmatic definition just tells you that you will assist in the recovery process from a very low productive state."

Productive of what?  Ecosystem services. From my view, this represents a broad repurposing of ecological restoration -- when I began going to conferences and reading resto journals and newsletters in the early 1990s, the field was full of amateur botanists and inspired local resource managers.  Few academics and no economists.  Now, I suspect, the field is very different.

On an unrelated note, this report on "one of the first REDD+ Type projects to be entirely controlled and operated by indigenous communities" is something of an eye-opener for those of us who have become accustomed to seeing REDD policy discussed as either a sort of celebration of non-additionality or a stalking horse for the centralization of political power over resources in rural third-world areas. REDD+ is a little more complicated that that.