The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Solution or Tyranny?

30 10 2008

The Crisis.

In the last 300 years, the global forest area has shrunk by approximately 40%.

Since 1900, the world has lost about 50% of its wetlands.

Some 30% of coral reefs have been seriously damaged through fishing, pollution, disease and coral bleaching.

In the past two decades, 35% of mangroves have disappeared.

The anthropogenic rate of species extinction is estimated to be 1,000 times greater than earth’s background rate, with 30% of amphibians, 20% of mammals, 12% of birds and 4% of fishes all threatened.

And the initial phase of a new study called ‘The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity’ (TEEB) (1) tells us that:

The well-being of every human population in the world is fundamentally and directly dependent on ecosystem services”


The Concept.

Ecosystem services are the benefits that nature provides to people, these can be food, clean water, assimilation of wastes, a pleasant view or the absorption of carbon dioxide. An understanding of the concept of ecosystem services is likely to be an essential part in any system that aims to prevent global ecological degradation. It sees the protection of species and natural systems as an imperative for human well-being. Something that is not always highlighted by environmentalists when battling for intrinsic causes. By their nature, it is often difficult for government’s to channel funds into projects when they cannot see the losses or immediate direct benefits for themselves or their people in monetary terms. TEEB further add that:

Natural resources, and the ecosystems that provide them, underpin our economic activity, our quality of life and our social cohesion. But the way we organise our economies does not give sufficient recognition to the dependent nature of this relationship – there are no economies without environments, but there are environments without economies”

Pavan Sukhdev, the leader of the TEEB project has said that in economic terms the losses, like those I stated at the start of this piece, dwarf those recently seen in the global economic collapse and are worth up to $5 trillion a year (2). After all if nature was not providing these services to us for free we would have to pay for the technology to recreate the functions they perform. From this it is entirely possible to deduce that the benefits we are now gaining from economic growth are being outweighed by the degradation of the biosphere. Inevitably making us poorer not richer.

It is likely that, similar to climate change, the impacts of biodiversity loss are going to be highly inequitable, effecting poorer people the hardest. Just imagine, we can walk or drive down the road to a supermarket and buy what we want to eat or drink but for the remote indigenous peoples their supermarket is the rainforest, reef or savannah and when it’s gone there is no immediate alternative.


The proposal.

It relies on the recognition of the economic value of the ecosystems and their constituent species that provide us with benefits (economists call it natural capital). It’s a market-based solution for conservation and accompanies many recent proposals that use markets to protect ecosystems. Implicit in all of them is that the environment can only be protected by selling it. These “solutions” often concentrate on forests due to their role in the carbon cycle and as biodiversity hotspots. TEEB say that:

Markets tend not to assign economic values to the largely public benefits of conservation, while assigning value to the private goods and services the production of which, may result in ecosystem damage”

This is called a ‘market failure’ and is the consequence of externalities. These result from individuals perusing their self-interest (e.g. profit from illegal logging) and in turn creating a situation that has negative consequences (e.g. deforestation) for society, in this case the world’s population. TEEB continue to present its economic case using the logic religiously followed by large financial institutions like the World Bank since Hardin’s, I would argue flawed, article ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (3). In which the allocation of individual property rights provide an incentive for a person not degrade a certain resource:

Many people in developing countries may have weak legal rights over the lands on which they live and work. This may become an incentive to “mine” these lands rather than to manage them sustainably.”

Yes, property rights are an effective means to equitably distribute resources and protect lands from becoming degraded. But, it depends on how and to who they are allocated. Even now in Brazil local governmental officials are more likely than not to be corrupt, favour wealthy land owners or even be wealthy businessmen themselves as in the case of Ivo Cassol (the Governor of Rondônia). Property rights that are connected to developed countries by direct payments for ecosystem services are likely to face problems related to the reliable verification of their biological worth without constant monitoring (not just from a satellite). Forest cover alone is not an indicator of ecosystem health.

One recent and obvious example of a wealthy western buying up a huge block of rainforest is that of Johan Eliasch (4), a businessmen nominated as the Prime Minister’s deforestation advisor, who unsurprisingly in his recent review, recommends that forests be included in the emerging carbon market. ‘Canopy Capital’ have persuaded ten wealthy philanthropists to buy the ecosystem services of Guyanna’s Iwokrama Forest Reserve. Conservation motivated land privatisation in Paraguay (5) offers us another example where organisations have acquired large tracts of forests, ancestral territories of Ache Guayakí and Ava Guaraní peoples, subverting their claims to the land. How just are these solutions for the people that live in these forests and do we know if they’ll work? Large payments and conservation are obviously more attractive than human rights and conservation and if allowed could lead to large-scale corporate governance of ecosystems and undermine established indigenous governance systems. Other alternatives include paying government’s to not cut down forests through carbon credit schemes, who could in turn pay loggers or farmers not to destroy them (that’s just crazy baby) and enforce the law. Another is to assign land rights to the indigenous who are directly dependent on the forests for their livelihoods, who if they had the desire could opt for markets to aid their development.


The right way to solve the ecological crisis?

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research rates of deforestation this past August are triple those over the same period last year, this is despite much spending on sustainable management programmes. Other data tell us that 19 percent of unprotected forest areas in Brazil have been deforested and in federal national parks 2 percent. In indigenous territories, however, only 1.1 percent have been deforested. A study presented at the Rights, Forests and Climate Change Conference in Oslo last week used data from 325 sites in 12 countries showing that community ownership of forests is a highly viable means to keep carbon locked up and conserve biodiversity. The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) in a report looking at climate change and forest governance conclude with a poignant statement (5).

unless robust and proactive steps are taken to clarify and strengthen the property rights of rural and forest peoples, future climate change initiatives will benefit only a few, primarily wealthy elites and will reinforce existing social and economic disparities”

There is a growing discontent with the progress that these market fixes are making in policy circles. The RRI and Rainforest Foundation Norway have called for the formation of independent bodies to monitor and advise the UN Convention on Climate Change. This sounds like a good idea and it needs to be extended to other arenas of environmental policy making. We shall wait and see what results from the second phase of the TEEB report and whether the words “indigenous rights” are mentioned anywhere.

It is vitally important that in these efforts to preserve ecosystem functions and biodiversity, supposed solutions do not increase corporate control of natural resources and in turn marginalise people, exacerbate poverty, undermine human rights, entice conflict and possibly fail all together. It comes full circle to the notion of economic growth in developed countries, this graph shows the correlation between our demands on the earth’s biosphere and GDP (that stem from our government’s prioritisation of economic growth). If the goal is to get to the roots of the problem we know where to look – at home – at our unquestioned consumption of wood, soya, corn, cow, shrimp, fish, cocaine, oil, gold and the multitude of other “products” ready to melt away our desires and make profits. Only an economy that does not depend on the continued inputs of natural resources and their subsequent pollutive outputs will begin to withdraw the destructive hand of global capital.








Chomsky on economics and democracy

21 10 2008

“I don’t think it has anything to do with socialism…it has to do with democracy. So, what is being called government intervention, in a democracy, would mean intervention of the population. In a democracy, political motives would mean the interests of the population in determining what’s going to happen next. If we decode the rhetoric, do we want private concentrations of power to make decisions for their own benefit? Or do we want the public to be concerned to make decisions for the public welfare? That’s what’s really behind it”

An occupation with British Petroleum?

15 10 2008

This is so good I’m just going to put the whole thing up and leave it at that. I doubt you will read/hear about it in the news.

“BP’s attempt to recruit Oxford graduates at the uber-swanky Randolph Hotel last night didn’t quite go according to plan…
It must have seemed so straightforward to BP. Book the swanky Ballroom at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, prepare a swish presentation, lay on the wine and canapes and watch the Oxford graduates come flocking in. A great opportunity to drain a few more well-educated brains into their evil oil empire, sorry, their “quest for the energy of the future”.

It didn’t quite work out that way, however.

First, the 100-odd attendees were met by a banner outside the hotel, reminding them that BP is, always has been, and always will be a climate-cooking fossil fuel company. Everyone received a leaflet and a few friendly words about BP’s less salubrious activities around the world.

Once everyone had filed in and found a seat beneath the chandeliers, a tall, fair, shiny BP PR rep called Adam took the stage. He barely had a chance to introduce himself before two audience members strolled onto the platform and told the crowd that actually, they had a five minute presentation about BP that they’d like to give first.

A friendly discussion ensued, with Adam ramping up his smarmy charm to the max, insisting that he “really wanted to hear” what the pair had to say but that he really ought to give his 10-minute BP spiel first. The crowd were getting restless so eventually the tenacious two agreed to let him speak, so long as they got their slot afterwards.

Poor Adam. He did his best to get through his ten minutes of cuddly corporate Powerpoint slides, but was clearly thrown off his game, sweating and stumbling over his words, insisting that he cared about the environment (“I love the countryside”) and that was why he had joined an equally caring company like BP. The most excruciating part was watching him put up slides about careers in oil and gas exploration, extraction and financing, and trying to crowbar in pre-emptive stuff about the environment and “alternative energy” that clearly weren’t part of the original plan. He wasn’t helped by another outspoken audience member who asked him, mid-spiel, why BP had spent more money on its green sunflower rebranding than on its annual renewable energy budget.

Adam rushed through his last few slides, and then it was the turn of the two intrepid stage-invaders. They launched into a calm, professional and utterly convincing explanation of what BP was up to around the world, why major oil companies aren’t part of the solution to climate change, and why the assembled graduates really ought to consider an alternative career. No sooner had they finished than a member of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign appeared at the podium. Despite Adam’s flustered requests for him not to speak, he launched into a powerful first-hand account of BP’s activities in Colombia – their complicity in environmental destruction, the crushing of peaceful social movements, and the funding and training of death squads. The room listened in awed silence, and applauded at the end.

Adam’s Blair-like facade of reasonableness was pretty stretched at this point, but he still managed to say something bare-faced like “that’s why it’s so exciting to work at BP – we need to get to grips with all these difficult challenges”, before asking two new BP recruits from the graduate programme to stand up and talk about their experiences.

As these two poor stooges rattled hastily through their prepared talks, all was not well in the audience. Loud arguments seemed to be breaking out in scattered points throughout the crowd, about why on earth they were at an event sponsored by such a dreadful company. One after another, all around the audience, angry people stood up and stormed out (or at least stormed as far as the wine and canape area at the back). Some of them weren’t even activists. Meanwhile, the bolshiest audience member was again demanding answers from Adam, and one bright spark put his hand up and asked “so, do we get taught how to kill Colombians as part of the graduate training scheme?”

Things were clearly not going to plan, but BP still had a card to play – it was time to break up for wine and nibbles, and a dozen chirpy young BP employees from their various divisions were ready to mingle through the crowd and reassure everyone that BP was trying its best, you know, and it wasn’t really as bad as the nasty activists were saying. Unfortunately, there seemed to be as many undercover (or completely blatant) campaigners in the crowd as there were BP staff. Every small group seemed to have someone in it pointing out the hypocrisy of BP’s greenwash, and how there were so many better things that graduates could do with their lives than work for an oil and gas multinational.

BP must have spent thousands of pounds on this event. I wonder if they feel like it was money well spent” (1)


Systemic what? Silence in the media. Illusive freedom.

14 10 2008

Selection for obedience.

While we keep hearing again and again of “systemic” problems about the way people have behaved in the banks, there is a more pervasive and silenced systemic problem in the media. In his preface to Animal Farm, Literary Censorship in England, Orwell wrote:

“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.” (1)

After published an article on intellectual cleansing in the media (2), in which they comment on the sacking of a journalist for comparing the tactics of a supermarket to those of the Gestapo. Jonathan Cook (3) a professional journalist responded:

“There are many stages in the early career of journalists designed to handicap and weed out those who do not conform or who question the framework within which they work … If they are to survive long, writers must quickly learn what the news desk expects of them. Newcomers are given a small amount of leeway to adopt angles that are “not suitable”. But they are also expected to learn quickly why such articles are unsuitable and not to propose similar reports again.”

“Journalists, of course, see this lengthy process of recruitment as necessary to filter for “quality” rather than to remove those who fail to conform or whose reporting threatens powerful elites. The media are supposedly applying professional standards to find those deserving enough to reach the highest ranks of journalism … the effect is that the media identify the best propagandists to promote their corporate values.”

“It is notable that there is not a single large media institution dedicated to providing a platform to those who dissent or express non-conformist views, however talented they are as journalists. Only at the very margins of what are considered to be left-wing publications such as the Guardian and the Independent can such voices very occasionally be heard, and even then only in the comment pages (see below).”

Cook mentions the work of Fisk, Monbiot and Pilger as the only examples in the mainstream press of radical journalists and even with these “their host newspapers subtly encourage a view of them as crackpots, armchair revolutionaries and whingers”

A system that selects for obedience and subordination limits the presence of dissenting views, propagandises through omission and in turn crafts a media that supports the establishment. This is a problem that is protected by the veneer of objectivity and freedom in a media system that weeds out those who express views that challenge the status quo.

In the media. On the weekend.

Mainstream papers supposedly differ ideologically, but frequently present the same stories in very similar ways. It is often the use or absence of just one word that can influence the way a reader may perceive an event or situation. Take for example the Independent last Sunday in an article titled ‘Palin: An Abuse of Office’, Rupert Cornwell when commenting on US Presidential battle writes:

“…Mrs Palin has led the personal attacks on Mr Obama, focusing on his links with the 1960s radical militant William Ayers”.

What links? And what kind of links? Has the Independent oS proved these links? In the 1960s Obama was just a child and Ayers (4) is now a Distinguished Professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Yes Obama does have links with Ayers, he served on the board of Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a large education-related non-profit organisation that Ayers was instrumental in starting. Crornwell’s sentence does not represent the facts and misleads the reader.

On turning four pages I reach a statement by the Independent oS, a so called liberal paper, titled “The green lining to this chaos”. Now, for me this really does highlight the effectiveness of the selection system. After referring to their “Green List”, a list of 100 people they think have contributed the most to the UK’s environmental movement (a list that sees David Cameron at number 40) they write:

“The argument here is one of balance, which is why we do not agree with the anti-capitalists who see the economic crisis as a chance to impose their utopia, whether of a socialist or eco-fundamentalist kind. Most of us in this country enjoy long and fulfilling lives thanks to liberal capitalism: we have no desire to live in a yurt under a workers’ soviet”

I’m not going to start an argument about capitalism being the disease for there isn’t the space – the alternative is highly complex and has never existed. But I will argue that the Independent oS does not understand the fundamental roots of our global environmental problem and that green capitalism will likely not be the solution.


A prerequisite to democracy is a media system that is free, in which facts are reported objectively and all opinions from anti-establishment through statist to neo-liberalism are reflected in professional journalism. The only means to move away from the rigid bureaucratic institutions that constitute our mainstream press may first be to diffuse recognition of the problem, support local participatory alternatives and create a businesses model that eliminates dependency on advertising revenue (like what is attempting).

1) George Orwell’s ‘Literary Censorship in England’




McCain has cancer?

10 10 2008

Does the thought of Palin becoming president send shivers up your old spiney? Well cop a load of this. Some anonymous leaks from the Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica are claiming so. McCain has a history of malignant melanomas that have appeared on his face (that’s part of the reason he’s so scarred up). Luckly (?!) they have all been successfully removed. But, this one seems to be occupying his jaw. This is taken from a story on

“Over the course of several exchanges with our reader, we can report the following. An official in the National Institutes of Health, well known to our reader, has confided to her that in an informal conversation with a doctor in a California hospital the NIH official  had learned that there had been a metastasis ( the spread of a disease from one organ or part to another non-adjacent organ or part) of McCain’s melanoma, and that this had come to light in a checkup in the past few weeks.

Urged to reconfirm this news and to provide further details, our reader pressed the NIH official for more details and reported back to us on September 26 that after she had asked the NIH official to verify the details, the official:

“decided this was important, and contacted her doctor friend to get what info she could. So here it is. John McCain recently was diagnosed with a melanoma recurrence, with a metastasis to the lymph node, in his latest, most recent cancer checkup, which took place at John Wayne Cancer Institute in California.”

Attempting to confirm this intelligence, CounterPunch contacted four physicians, none of whom want to be identified. Two remarked the subsidence of swelling in McCain’s left jaw in recent months. A UC San Francisco cancer specialist said, “It looked to me like he had something going on in his left jaw for a long time, and then it appeared much less puffy in the last few months. My theory was that he had gotten some radiation therapy. It was way pooched out compared to what it is now. He used to not show his left side on camera. And then he appeared to be going head-on. So my guess was that he had had some radiation.”

An East Coast oncologist said of John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California,  “That would be the place he’d go because the world’s expert surgeon for melanoma, Donald Morton, is there.” Dr. Morton, while head of surgical oncology at UCLA, developed a technique that minimizes the number of lymph nodes that must be removed during biopsies.” (1)

Gee, who knows how true this is. Nonetheless it’s pretty crazy. A man who could have cancer is running for president and the US public don’t know about it.


The utility of ideas

6 10 2008

This is a lecture by Naomi Klein that really gets at some of the underlying roots of US economics and its fundamental problems. I particularly like the idea about ideas. In times of disturbance the ideas that surround the vacuum of reality are drawn on or pushed forward and further their own success.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Pacific vortex of death

1 10 2008