notes from the geographical frontier

RGS Explore 2016: Social science methods

Here is a list of useful books for help with designing and carrying out social science research projects on expeditions: 

General reading: 

Kapila, S. and Lyon, F. (2006) People-Oriented Research. Geography Outdoors.                 (http://www.rgs.org/OurWork/Publications/EAC+publications/Field+Technique+Manualss.htm

Qualitative methods:

Craig, M. and Cook, I. (2007) Doing Ethnographies. Sage

Emerson, R.M. et al. (1995) Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. Chicago University Press

Hay, I. ed (2000) Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Quantitative surveys:

Angelsen, A. et al. (2011) Measuring Livelihoods and Environmental Dependence: Methods for Research and Fieldwork. Earthscan.

Methods for development research:

Desai, V. and Potter, R.B. (2006) Doing Development Research. Sage

Hammett, D. et al. (2015) Research and Fieldwork in Development. Rutledge

Pratt, B., and P. Loizos (1992) Choosing Research Methods: Data collection for development workers. Oxfam, Oxford

Methods for conservation research:

Newing, H. (2011) Conducting Research in Conservation. Rutledge

For help with participatory methods:

Chambers, R. (2008) Revolutions in Development Inquiry. Earthscan

Chambers, R. (2002) Participatory Workshops: A sourcebook of 21 sets of ideas and activities. Earthscan.

Grandin, B. (1988) Wealth Ranking in Smallholder Communities: A field manual. Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd, London.

Visual anthropology methods:

Hockings, P. (1995) (ed.) Principles of visual anthropology [2nd edition]. The Hague: Mouton

Turner, T. (1992) Defiant images: the Kayapo appropriation of video, Anthropology Today 8 (6): 5-16.

Rollwagon, J. (1988) (ed.) Anthropological filmmaking. Chur: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Collier, John Jn and Malcolm Collier (1986) Visual anthropology: photography as a research method. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

AAG 2016 Call for Papers: Biodiversity conservation, culture and context - new insights from political ecology

Association of American Geographers Annual Conference 2016 in San Francisco (March 29 to April 2, 2016). 

Paper Session: Biodiversity conservation, culture and context - new insights from political ecology

Session organisers: Ivan Scales, University of Cambridge and Riamsara Kuyakanon Knapp, University of Cambridge

Global conservation policy and practice have undergone significant change over the last decade. A greater focus on market-based mechanisms, poverty alleviation, economic development, humanitarianism and corporate partnerships has led some to announce the arrival of a ‘New Conservation’ (Soulé 2013), provoking renewed debate on conservation’s core values, as well as a call for the recognition of conservation’s diversity of aims and approaches (Tallis & Lubchenko 2014).

While the global expansion of protected areas as a fundamental strategy of conventional conservation has continued, there is increasing recognition of the heterogeneity of conservation policy and practice (Dudley et al. 2014, Verschuuren et al. 2010, Sandbrook et al. 2011) and of the importance of culture to conservation outcomes (Waylen et al. 2010, Scales 2012). There have also been renewed attempts to build on local institutions and to engage with indigenous knowledge and beliefs, informed by a more critical appreciation of local complexities (Coombes et al. 2012, Dressler et al. 2010). However, important questions remain about how global biodiversity conservation ‘touches down’ in different contexts, as well as how identity, knowledge and contrasting values play into contestations over natural resources.

Political ecology has an established history of studying biodiversity conservation, revealing its values and power struggles. While political ecology has deepened and broadened understandings of the socio-cultural dimensions of biodiversity conservation, research has often emphasised single aspects of social difference (for example class). As political ecologists have become increasingly eclectic in the theories and tools that they draw on, there have been calls for more sophisticated analyses of power that focus on the roles of gender, ethnicity, knowledge and identity in claims over natural resources (Goldman 2011, Rocheleau 2008). For example, there has been a growing focus on intersectionality, i.e. the way ethnicity, gender, class and other forms of social difference interact simultaneously to shape and constrain identity and social roles. There has also been a greater focus on multiple and situated knowledges and the interactions between them (Goldman et al. 2011).

How are these more pluralistic political ecologies contributing to analyses of diverse conservation practices in diverse contexts?

In this session we will explore recent trends in global biodiversity conservation through more pluralistic political ecologies. We are particularly interested in conservation policies and practices that focus on working with / through ‘local’ beliefs, values and institutions. We are also particularly interested in novel political ecology approaches that seek to move beyond more traditional analyses of power.

Possible topics / themes could include:

Identity. What factors shape the identities of resource users; how do identities shape resource use; and how do conservation policies and practices shape identities (and vice versa).

Intersectionality. How does a focus on the intersection between class, gender and / or ethnicity contribute to understandings of biodiversity conservation policy and practice?

Multiple / situated knowledges, practices and values. How is conservation policy interacting with local knowledges, practices and institutions? Where is the researcher positioned and how does s/he navigate within and across multiple framings?

Hybridity. How are different knowledges, values and beliefs hybridising through conservation policy and practice?

Power. How do identity, intersectionality, situated knowledges / values, and hybridity play into contests over resource use? How is power exercised in conservation policies and practices that focus on culture?

Abstracts (250 words maximum) should be sent to both Riamsara Kuyakanon Knapp and Ivan Scales (email addresses below) by 5pm GMT on Friday 16th October 2015.

Riamsara Knapp: 


Ivan Scales: 


Decisions will be made and communicated by 5pm GMT on Friday 23rd October 2015. The deadline for submitting abstracts to the AAG is currently Thursday 29th October 2015.  


Coombes, B., Johnson, J. T., Howitt, R. (2012) Indigenous geographies I: Mere resource conflicts? The complexities in indigenous land and environmental claims. Progress in Human Geography 36, 810-821.

Dressler, W., Buscher, B., Schoon, M., Brockington, D., Hayes, T., Kull, C. A., McCarthy, J. and Shrestha, K. (2010) From hope to crisis and back again? A critical history of the global CBNRM narrative. Environmental Conservation 37, 5-15.

Dudley, Nigel, Craig Groves, Kent H. Redford, and Sue Stolton. 2014. “Where Now for Protected Areas? Setting the Stage for the 2014 World Parks Congress.” Oryx FirstView: 1–8.

Goldman, M. J. and Turner, M. D. (2011). Introduction. In: Goldman, M. J., Nadasdy, P. and Turner, M. D. (eds) Knowing nature: conversations at the intersection of political ecology and science studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 1–23.

Rocheleau, D. (2008). Political ecology in the key of policy: from chains of explanation to webs of relation. Geoforum 39, pp. 716–727.

Sandbrook, C., Scales, I.R., Vira, B. and Adams, W.M. (2011) ‘Value Plurality among Conservation Professionals’. Conservation Biology, 25, 285-294.

Scales, I.R. (2012) ‘Lost in translation: Conflicting views of deforestation, land use and identity in western Madagascar’ The Geographical Journal, 178, 67-79.

Soule, M. (2013) The ‘New Conservation’. Conservation Biology, 27, 895-897.

Tallis, Heather, and Jane Lubchenco. 2014. “Working Together: A Call for Inclusive Conservation.” Nature, 515 (7525): 27–28.

Verschuuren, Bas, Robert Wild, Jeffrey A. McNeeley, and Gonzalo Oviedo, eds. 2010. Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture. 1st ed. London: Earthscan.

Waylen, Kerry A., Anke Fischer, Philip J. K. Mcgowan, Simon J. Thirgood, and E. J. Milner-Gulland. 2010. “Effect of Local Cultural Context on the Success of Community-Based Conservation Interventions.” Conservation Biology, 24 (4): 1119–29.

Ecological redemption through consumption? Why we won’t be able to shop our way to sustainability

I’ve been thinking / writing a lot about green capitalism lately. In my last post I discussed the increasingly close relationship between international conservation organisations and big business, and why we should think carefully about the argument for placing a financial value on nature.

In my latest academic paper I consider the rapid growth of ‘green’ consumerism and ecolabels.

The idea that we can shop our way out of our environmental problems is appealing. Green consumerism (which is part of a broader trend of ‘ethical’ consumerism) doesn’t require us to radically change the way we live our lives. Instead, it sells us a vision of capitalism where we act as empowered consumers to make the world a better place.

Ethical consumerism is big business. According to a recent report from the Institute for Sustainable Development, the volume of commodities produced under various social and environmental certification standards jumped 41% in 2012. According to the report ‘Sustainability standards have forcefully penetrated mainstream markets’. In other words, ethical consumption is no longer a niche activity.

However, as the report points out, there have been downsides to this rapid expansion. Here are some of its key findings:

- ‘Production for sustainable markets is concentrated in more advanced, export-oriented economies’ i.e. the demands of global markets tend to favour large-scale producers and access to markets can be difficult for poor farmers

- ‘Average criteria coverage of voluntary sustainability standards is declining as standards target mainstream markets’ i.e. as the market for ethical goods has grown and become more mainstream there is evidence that standards have slipped

- ‘Voluntary sustainability standards offer an important contribution to the green economy but cannot be assumed to deliver sustainable development outcomes’

As if this report didn’t cast enough of a shadow on ethical consumption, the Fair Trade, Employment and Poverty Reduction Research group at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies recently published a damning assessment of Fairtrade in Uganda and Ethiopia.

The following are direct quotes from the report:

- ‘This research was unable to find any evidence that Fairtrade has made a positive difference to the wages and working conditions of those employed in the production of the commodities produced for Fairtrade certified export in the areas where the research has been conducted’

- ‘In some cases, indeed, the data suggest that those employed in areas where there are Fairtrade producer organisations are significantly worse paid, and treated, than those employed for wages in the production of the same commodities in areas without any Fairtrade certified institutions.’

- ‘this research suggests that Fairtrade organizations need to pay far more attention to the conditions of those extremely poor rural people – especially women and girls – employed in the production of commodities labelled and sold to ‘ethical consumers’ who expect their purchases to improve the lives of the poor.’

So what has gone wrong? Is this simply something that can be fixed with better monitoring? Or are there deeper problems?

To try and answer these questions it is worth spelling out the main assumptions behind green consumerism, which are that:

-  Consumers can be provided with clear information about the social and environmental conditions under which the goods they consume are produced

- This enables them to make choices about the way they consume

-  In response to this information consumption will change, both in terms of what is consumed (the pattern of consumption) and how much is consumed (the intensity of consumption)

-  Producers and retailers will react to changing consumer demands

In my paper in Geography Compass I draw on Green Marxian theory to challenge these assumptions. Here is a summary of my main arguments: 

The fundamental challenge: capitalism and the ‘metabolic rift’ between societies and the ecosystems that sustain them

Before we get to green consumerism, it is worth thinking about the relationship between capitalism and the environment more generally.

While humans have a long history of modifying their environments, impacts since the Industrial Revolution have been notable both for their scale and diversity, especially since the 1950s when the pace of industrialisation, agricultural intensification, urbanisation and mass consumption has accelerated.

According the Green Marxists the problem is capitalism itself, which they argue has a tendency to create a separation (both physical and social) between societies and nature. This is referred to as a ‘metabolic rift’. This rift occurs because of capitalism’s focus on economic growth and a relentless increase in the productive and consumptive capacities of society, combined with social relations based on an unequal distribution of wealth, property and power.

The 19th century chemist Justus von Liebig was the first to draw attention to the fact that urbanisation and industrialisation had led to a physical separation of food production and consumption. In agrarian societies, food production and consumption are carried out in close proximity and nutrient cycles can easily be maintained by returning organic waste (and therefore nutrients) to the land. However, with urbanisation and industrialisation, food is produced in rural areas and moved to cities to be consumed. Waste, rather than being returned to the soil as fertiliser, is disposed of as sewage and the nutrient cycle broken. In other words, a metabolic rift has occurred. 

Agricultural developments during the course of the twentieth century have led to further metabolic rifting (In my paper I discuss how much this is down to the specifics of capitalism or whether it is to do with other ‘master processes’ such as technological innovation).

Synthetic fertilisers and mechanization have not only boosted crop yields but have also allowed farms to specialize in either crop or livestock operations. This has resulted in a separation of livestock from feed sources, driven a move away from mixed farming, and culminated in the development of factory farms where animals are kept permanently indoors at high stocking densities to maximise economies of scale and boost profits (at the expense of animal welfare and the environment).

Not only has factory farming led to further breaks in nutrient cycles, it has also created further environmental problems including pesticide and fertilizer run-off into watercourses and the production of large quantities of sewage containing pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorous, antibiotics and growth hormones.

Green Marxists argue that capitalism drives the metabolic rift, as more and more of the natural world is given over to profit maximization. Urbanisation, industrialisation and the vast commodity chains created by globalisation mean that modern consumers have little knowledge and interest in the consequences of their consumptive choices. The metabolic rift has thus helped to fuel what Robert Pyle calls the ‘Extinction of Experience’, where ‘people know and recognise less, care less, and therefore act less’

Big business as the solution, or the problem?

Green capitalism places a large emphasis on the power of business and entrepreneurship to solve environmental problems. The idea is that in a competitive marketplace, firms will compete for the business of increasingly ethically minded consumers and innovate to provide them with better (i.e. ‘greener’) goods. It sees consumer power as a key driver of sustainability.

Allan Schnaiberg argues that power in modern capitalist economies tends to lie with large retailers and governments and that capitalism’s central logic tends to push innovation and technology down more destructive and less sustainable paths. According to his ‘Treadmill of Production’ theory, the competitive logic of capitalism means individuals and firms must always invest, innovate and grow or risk being outcompeted. In other words, they must always be running to stay in the same place (hence the treadmill metaphor).

This has major implications for the way firms and individuals behave, especially with regards to what they do with profits and any gains in productivity that technology delivers.

In theory, gains in productivity allow us to produce the same amount of goods with fewer resources. Treadmill theory argues that in reality, capitalism’s competitive logic means that profits will always be re-invested back into increasing production. Any productive gains provided by innovation will be used to produce more with the same resources rather than producing the same with fewer resources.

This has serious environmental implications, since every ‘turn’ of the treadmill involves the extraction of resources and the addition of pollutants. Furthermore, the treadmill of production in turn fuels a treadmill of consumption. By stimulating competition between firms, capitalism drives ever-increasing efforts to sell us goods and services through branding and advertising. This inevitably creates mass consumption societies where more and more goods are manufactured, purchased and disposed of.

The treadmill of production not only creates continual incentives to produce and consume more, it also means that power lies with large producers and retailers. Research on the certification of fisheries, coffee (see Daviron and Ponte’s book on ‘The Coffee Paradox’) and timber has shown that the gains achieved through selling premium ‘eco’ products tend to be captured by large producers and retailers, with small producers often excluded from taking part due to the high entry costs, as certification often has to be paid for by producers rather than retailers.

Klooster’s research shows that with certified timber, large buyers such as IKEA and Home Depot demand high volumes and uniform characteristics at a competitive price. Small producers, especially those from low-income nations, can find it impossible to meet these demands. As a result, 80% of FSC certified forest areas are located in the USA, Canada, and Europe, with only 10% in tropical countries and only three per cent under community management.

Not only have large retailers and manufacturers managed to pass on the costs of certification and capture the premiums of ‘green’ products, they have often been able to pressure organisations into relaxing labelling standards. This has allowed a wider range of products to be marketed under certain labels, potentially undermining the effectiveness of such schemes.  

Commodity fetishism and the green consumer

Green consumerism assumes it is possible to change consumer behaviour by providing them with more information about the goods they consume. However, recent research suggests that even with labels to guide them, consumers can find it hard act ‘green’. Once again, ideas from Marxist theory can help us to understand why.

Marx argued that capitalism fundamentally alters the relationship between people and the things they buy and sell. He labeled this process ‘commodity fetishism’.

In the common usage of the word, the term ‘fetish’ is used to describe a strong and also unusual desire for an object or activity. It is also used in anthropology to describe objects believed to have magical powers. According to Marxist theory, capitalism encourages both forms of fetishism with regard to commodities. This occurs because commodities are primarily produced for the purpose of making profit. This means that their exchange values are prioritised over their use values (or the value of the labour that went into creating them).

Furthermore, individuals in mass consumer societies tend to define themselves through conspicuous consumption, so that consumer goods are purchased less for the functions they perform and more for their status-enhancing properties.

For example, the value attached to high-end electronic gadgets such as smartphones has less to do with their actual physical properties or the labour that produced them and more to do with branding and what these commodities represent in mass consumer societies. The willingness of consumers to replace perfectly functional electronic goods for the latest model is testament to the power of fetishisation.

Capitalism is particularly good at fetishising objects because of its social relations, which separate workers from the objects that they produce and separate consumers from workers. This means that consumers do not know where the goods they consume are produced, by whom, and under which social and environmental conditions.

In theory, ecolabeling helps to ‘defetishise’ commodities by providing consumers with information about the environmental conditions of production. However, by reducing complex socio-ecological problems to simple labels and brands, ecolabeling in fact fetishises commodities in new ways by selling the idea to consumers that they are ‘saving the environment’ simply through their consumptive choices. In other words, it is selling ecological redemption through consumption.

Green consumption reassures consumers that they are ‘doing good’ simply though their choices as consumers. In doing so, it hides the need for significant political and economic change that can only occur through political engagement. So, to paraphrase Paige West, while green consumerism may give us a tasty cup of coffee, it makes for lukewarm environmental action.

It also seems that in many cases, ‘ethical’ branding is less an opportunity to ‘green’ consumption and more a chance to reach new customers. For example, the Carbon Trust promotes its carbon footprint labels to businesses as a chance to ‘Grow your market share’ and ‘gain competitive advantage’

Faced with diverse and complex environmental issues, a wide range of labelling schemes and increased efforts by retailers and producers to create new brand identities, it is little wonder that consumers can find it hard to act ‘green’.

Paige West, carrying our research on coffee consumption in New York, found that despite efforts to label and certify coffee, consumers had little idea of where coffee was produced, under what social and environmental conditions or even what the different labels and certifications corresponded to. Unfortunately, it seems that green consumption has only added to the process whereby, as Hudson and Hudson argue, ‘the continuous bombardment of consumers by messages designed to manipulate their wants and desires creates a public jaded and cynical about information in general’.

Paying for nature? Why we should think twice about the financial argument for conserving biodiversity

The debate over how best to protect nature and reduce environmental degradation is heating up. George Monbiot and Tony Juniper have recently written articles debating the pros and cons of environmental policy that emphasizes ‘natural capital’ and attempts to put a price on nature and the benefits we get from it. 

So how should we maintain biological diversity and ecosystem function? Should we simply create protected areas that limit human activities? Is the answer stronger state or international regulation? Do we need radical political, cultural and economic changes? Or should we embrace the free market and hope that placing a financial value on nature will help to create incentives to conserve it? 

What follows here is my contribution to the debate. It is largely based on my latest paper ‘Paying for nature: What every conservationist should know about political economy’, published in Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation, and a forthcoming entry on green capitalism in the International Encyclopedia of Geography


The growing influence of the concept of ‘natural capital’ is part of a much broader phenomenon whereby global environmentalism and global capitalism are becoming increasingly intertwined. This has manifested itself in many ways. Big business is offsetting its carbon emissions by paying for the carbon sequestering services of tropical forests in low-income countries.  

Companies communicate the environmental ‘friendliness’ of their products through ‘eco’ labels offered by organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council, the Carbon Trust and the Rainforest Alliance. Ethically minded consumers are increasingly embracing ‘eco’ brands. 

These are just a few examples of what is being labelled as the ‘greening’ of capitalism, or ‘blue-green’ environmentalism. ‘Green’ capitalism starts from the recognition that ecosystems perform a wide range of services that societies depend on. This includes provisioning services (e.g. supplying us with water, food and energy), regulating services (e.g. trees locking up carbon and helping to mitigate against climate change) and also cultural services (e.g. providing us with spaces for ‘eco’tourism and outdoor sports). 

The concept of natural capital plays a central role in green capitalism. Natural capital is defined as ‘the stock of ecosystems that yields a renewable flow of goods and services that underpin the economy and provide inputs and direct and indirect benefits to businesses and society’   

The problem with existing markets is that they fail to account for the economic benefits of nature and the costs of damaging it. Because markets have to date not been able to account for the value of natural capital, the profit motive tends to drive environmental degradation. This is due to the fact that it is cheaper to pollute than to control emissions and more profitable to use resources now than to save them for the future. 

The solution to the problem of environmental degradation from a green capitalist perspective is to factor the value of nature into the way markets operates. Rather than relying on state regulation or demanding radical social change (for example consuming much less), green capitalism is based on the premise that private property, entrepreneurial business and economic growth can be good for the environment. The hope is that once nature has a financial value and environmental degradation has an economic cost, market forces will encourage producers to become more efficient and innovative in the way they use natural resources. 

Green capitalism has been heavily promoted, not only by governments and large corporations, but also by some environmental organisations, who are playing an increasingly important role. They advise companies on corporate social responsibility and provide expert knowledge to help measure and certify payments for ecosystem services. 

‘Blue-green’ policies are presented as win-win solutions, with the potential to create opportunities for economic growth, incentives for the maintenance of biological diversity, and financial support for conservation activities. Placing an emphasis on the economic value of nature is often put forward as the only realistic and pragmatic way of explaining the importance of biological diversity to policymakers and business leaders. 

While the increasingly close relationship between business and environmentalism might be celebrated as a step towards sustainability, there are important reasons why we should think twice before we put a price on nature. 

Nature as an uncooperative commodity

The aim of ‘green’ capitalism is to turn natural capital into a commodity, i.e. something that is brought and sold. While products derived from nature have of course been traded for millennia, green capitalism proposes we go further by placing a value on a much broader range of types of natural capital including, for example, the environmental services that ecosystems perform (like carbon sequestration). 

The problem with treating most forms of natural capital as commodities is that ecosystems services and biological diversity are not produced specifically for the purpose of exchange. They are not, strictly speaking, commodities. 

A ‘good’ commodity (i.e. something that is straightforward to exchange) is produced specifically for the purpose of exchange and has clear values, boundaries and property rights. This is the opposite of most ecosystems, which have multiple, overlapping, complicated and contested values and ownership rights. 

A good example of how tricky it can be to turn ecosystem services into commodities is provided by Karen Bakker’s work on the privatisation of water. Bakker has labelled water an ‘uncooperative’ commodity. Her research shows that water is difficult to own, manage privately and commodify. Its provision and use involves a set of complex and diffuse biophysical processes. Rain falls over large areas; water flows above and below ground and into various tributaries, rivers and lakes; water is stored in diverse reservoirs, from underground aquifers to man-made structures. Flows and stores of water often cut across political and economic boundaries at various spatial levels, leading to complex politics of ownership and control. Supplying people with water also depends on large infrastructure that requires considerable investment. This favours monopoly control rather than competing providers in a free market. Finally, water involves a diverse set of users with different and sometimes conflicting priorities. 

Because ecosystems and the services they provide are complex, most efforts to commodify nature tend to focus on one or two specific services and try to simplify those services as much as possible. Looking at carbon offsets for example, for the sake of simplicity, schemes tend to treat carbon as fungible; i.e. different forms of carbon, locked up in different forms of biomass and released through diverse processes, become mutually substitutable. Carbon is thus converted into a uniform commodity and separated from both its social and ecological context so that it can be traded on global carbon markets. 

Valuing ecosystems primarily in terms of natural capital, and therefore reducing their value down to a set of key ecosystem functions, is likely to have unforeseen consequences. In the context of climate change for example, the world’s forests are increasingly seen through the lens of carbon sequestration. The current priority is to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, through whatever means – renewable energy, energy efficiency, or carbon offsets. 

Offsetting carbon by paying low-income nations to maintain tropical forest cover through avoided deforestation is seen as a cheap way of doing this. This is the basis of the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD)

However, in privileging carbon, other social and environmental concerns risk being forgotten. The rapid rise of carbon markets has already led to the establishment of monospecific plantations, with certain tree species (for example eucalypts and pines) favoured because of their rapid growth rates. A narrow policy focus on carbon could encourage investment in plantations instead of work on restoring complex ecosystems or maintaining biodiversity. 

There are also implications for livelihoods. Companies claim they are converting ‘marginal’ and ‘degraded’ grasslands and woodlands to more useful forest carbon sinks. But marginal to whom? Such ‘degraded’ grasslands and woodlands are often relied on by rural households for a range of livelihood activities, from cropland to grazing land and as sources of fuelwood and other products. 

The power relations in green capitalism 

Because nature is often a reluctant commodity, ‘green’ capitalism tends to rely on particular individuals and institutions to create, measure and trade green commodities. 

Looking at carbon trading and carbon forestry for example, these require complex scientific measurements to assess how much carbon is stored in different types of vegetation. They require regular assessment of whether forest cover is being maintained (and the carbon sequestration service is therefore being delivered). The commodification of carbon also depends on organisations to certify and trade carbon credits. So the key people involved in the commodification of nature are the scientists who enable the measurements of ecosystem services, the consultants and organisations who advise on projects, and the financial experts and institutions who enable trading to take place. 

Past experiences of more traditional commodities produced in low income nations (such as cocoa and coffee) remind us where the power tends to lie in complex global commodity chains. There is likely to be unequal bargaining power between the various actors (buyers, sellers and intermediaries), with global buyers benefitting from greater experience, knowledge and buying power

Thinking about the power relations of green capitalism means shining a light on the role played by international conservation NGOs, many of which have positioned themselves as gatekeepers between global business and threatened ecosystems. Conservation organisations and the environmental movement more generally have moved from being voices on the margins (often criticizing big business) to playing a central role in creating new ‘green’ commodities. 

In Madagascar for example, a group of conservation NGOs have formed a partnership with Rio Tinto/QMM, providing advice on the environmental impacts of ilmenite mining and helping to negotiate biodiversity offsetting, and receiving funds for conservation activities. 

The uneven power relations involved in green capitalism mean that there is a strong potential for ‘green grabbing’ i.e. the appropriation of land and natural resources by elites, both for environmental ends (for example rural households losing access to land so that carbon sequestering trees can be planted) and for financial gain (for example claiming areas of forest in order to receive payments for the carbon that they store). 

It is likely that, especially low-income nations, the sudden potential for new forms of ‘green’ wealth will lead to strong incentives for elites (local, national, and international) to take control of natural resources. ‘Green grabs’ could thus mirror the spate of recent agricultural ‘land grabs’, which have seen corporations, investment funds and foreign governments acquiring land to grow a variety of crops (from foodstuffs to biofuels). This has sometimes led to rural households losing access to land

‘Green grabs’ have already been documented in a number of different contexts and geographical locations. In Uganda for example, households have lost access to land acquired by a Norwegian company for carbon forestry.  

While some households might benefit from the new sources of income created by green capitalism (especially those who can afford to abandon short-term subsistence activities in return for future payments for ecosystem services), poorer households are often the most directly dependent on access to natural resources such as forests and thus stand to lose the most from any schemes that redefine resource use and prioritise environmental services over other livelihood options. It is likely that many attempts to commodify environmental services will keep some individuals, households and communities in ‘poverty traps’ as they are forced to forgo more lucrative activities in order to protect environmental services. 

The future of ‘green’ capitalism? 

Efforts to value ecosystem services and natural capital are still in their infancy, although research is booming, with various groups rushing to develop new tools and techniques to value nature (see for example work at UNEP-WCMC, the University of Oxford, and The Natural Capital Project)  

As researchers, governments and NGOs plough ahead with their efforts, there are serious questions to be asked about the politics of pricing nature. For example, who will be the winners and losers in efforts to place a financial value on nature? How are the costs and benefits being distributed? Who will be paid for providing ecosystem services (individuals, households, communities, governments?) Who will lose access to land as various external actors attempt to secure the ecosystem functions that form the basis of ‘green’ commodities? How is property being restructured under green capitalism? Who exercises power and how? 

These questions point to a bigger question. As Michael Sandel has argued in ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ (2012), ‘without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society… The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets’. 

Tony Juniper argues that the economy and ecology are not in competition. However, this depends entirely on what the economic system is, its goals and, more fundamentally, its power relations. 

Ultimately, the question shouldn’t be whether we can place a financial value on nature, as if there is no other choice. The question is should we? 

Paying for nature: what every conservationist should know about political economy

My latest publication…

Conservation and Environmental Management in Madagascar (Hardback) - Routledge

My latest publication… The history of conservation policy and practice over the last 30 years shows that international donors, conservation NGOs and the Malagasy government have not been short of bold solutions – from national environmental action plans to community resource management initiatives and the tripling of the island’s protected areas. However, the continued loss and fragmentation of habitats; the resurgence of the illegal trade in exotic hardwoods; and the fact that policy has often had serious impacts on local livelihoods suggests that there is still much to be done. There has been a recent flourishing of social science research on conservation and development in Madagascar. This has come from a range of disciplines – anthropology, economics, geography, political science and environmental history. This edited volume provides a comprehensive assessment of the status of conservation and environmental management in Madagascar, evaluating the lessons from the past and the challenges ahead. 

“The trouble with most forms of transport, he thought, is basically that not one of them is worth all the bother. On Earth, the problem had been with cars. The disadvantages involved pulling lots of black sticky slime from out of the ground where it had been safely hidden out of harm’s way, turning it into tar to cover the land with, smoke to fill the air with and pouring the rest into the sea, all seemed to outweigh the advantages of being able to get more quickly from one place to the other - particularly when the place you arrived at had probably become, as a result of this, very similar to the place you had left, i.e., covered with tar, full of smoke, and short of fish”

—   Douglas Adams, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

—   Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac