Commodifying and selling nature to save it

In this excerpt from The Great Takeover, a study of stakeholders in global governance, Mary Ann Manahan outlines how capitalism invades and quantifies ecosystems in economic terms.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from the chapter “Commodifying and Selling Nature to Save It: Multistakeholderism in Global Environmental Governance” by Mary Ann Manahan in The Great Takeover: Mapping of Multistakeholderism in Global Governance (2021, People’s Working Group on Multistakeholderism and its members), researched by Mary Ann Manahan and Madhuresh Kumar, and edited by Brid Brennan, Gonzalo Berrón, Martin Drago and Leticia Paranhos. 

Global environmental and climate governance entails processes and mechanisms through which various actors govern and regulate the environment. They involve a variety of actors and institutions such as states, corporations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and local communities, modes of governing such as actor networks and policy platforms, and policy tools such as taxation, regulation, information provision, and voluntary approaches. Since the 1970s, global attention for biodiversity, protection of species, cross-border pollution, the ozone layer, nuclear disasters, the greenhouse effect and tropical forest degradation have increased tremendously. The prevailing model for global governance since the dawn of nation-states has been multilateralism, wherein governments are the sole-decision makers, and their interlocutors are other governments. 

Multilateralism as embodied by the United Nations (UN) system has produced several high-level summits and follow-up meetings that sought to tackle the burgeoning and alarming environmental problems and facilitate collective and concerted action/s from member states. Two notable ones put the concept of “sustainable development” on the map: the 1987 “Our Common Future” report penned by the Brundtland Commission under the helm of Gro Harlem Brundtland, and the 1992 Earth Summit, which engendered Agenda 21, and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Sustainable development was defined in the Brundtland report as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. 

While the concept has been largely debated for its ambiguity, at the core of it is the certainty that economic development and protection of nature can go together and that there is no inevitable conflict between the two. It further galvanised the links or nexus between development and environmental sustainability, that is, the environment constrains development and that development impacts on the environment, which was also encapsulated in the World Bank’s 1992 World Development Report. It was, therefore, not a coincidence that the Earth Summit’s main purpose was to produce a blueprint to “rethink economic growth, advance social equity, and ensure environmental protection”. Twenty years later, at the Rio+20 Summit, the same developmental goals of profit, people and planet were renewed by UN member states, but this time reinforcing and advocating for a “mutually reinforcing … relationship of economic growth, nature protection and social equity objectives” under a new frame – the “green economy”, at the heart of which is a continuation of the dominant logic of neoliberal capitalism.

Under this new framing, global environmental and climate governance, and conservation goals of saving nature and biodiversity can only be achieved through the revaluing and incorporation of peoples and ecologies into (financial and global) market terms. This meant refashioning environmental governance efforts and actions by states, the private sector and civil society towards more devolved market-oriented and based approaches such as alternative fuel or low-carbon economies, new green technologies, natural capital accounting and payment for ecosystem services, to name a few. The reorientation to market-based approaches is deemed as the alternative response to lacking and fraught-laden state-led conservation and environmental protection policies and initiatives such as the creation of protected areas and parks (also known as fortress conservation), tree planting, water and air pollution regulation, logging bans, etc. 

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The United National Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity are the main two established UN bodies governing global climate and environmental policy coming into force in 1994 and 1993 respectively. While the United Nations system remains as the main multilateral body and platform for discussions and action around sustainable development, climate and environmental issues, it also enabled and produced multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) and mechanisms aimed at ostensibly filling the political gap between espoused policies/principles and concrete programs. These MSIs have been largely dominated by corporate-led institutions such as the World Economic Forum and World Business Council on Sustainable Development, and big international environmental and transnational conservation NGOs such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, among others. The mushrooming of MSIs and the consequential shift from multilateralism to multistakeholderism in global environmental governance can be attributed to several intersecting dynamics – the failure of political leadership, vision and commitment, as well as lost opportunities, especially since the 1992 Earth Summit, the burgeoning crisis of multilateral institutions, inadequacy of financing for the environment and climate and the urgency of responding to the planetary crisis. 

The above global developments comprise a brief and incomplete background for the mapping of multistakeholder initiatives and mechanisms in the environment and climate sectors. In this chapter, I sketch out the main descriptive and interpretive analyses of the catalogued MSIs. As a component of the multisectoral mapping, a few caveats need to be spelled out. One, the mapping exercise is an incomplete list. It is most likely that several MSIs were missed. Two, only global MSIs were covered from the start of the 2000s. The reason behind this is both practical and political. Practical: to narrow down the scope of the exercise. Political: to emphasise that a concerted call from UN member states and non-state actors for the development and strengthening of MSIs to promote good practices, access to environmentally sound technologies and capacity development as well as operationalisation of the green economy at the local, sub-regional and national levels took off and now, intensifying in the 21st century. 

In short, this chapter aims to underscore the key characteristics of the MSIs involved in global environment governance as well as identify converging trends and common threads that underpin the narratives and strategies they deploy on the global stage. Rather than starting with the database, the interpretive or analytical part will be outlined first, followed by the descriptive section that unpacks the numbers. The idea is to offer some critical frames as important accompanying tools in reading the findings from the database. These critical frames also stem from the slogans, objectives and agenda of the surveyed MSIs. After these parts, a brief conclusion reiterates key findings and analyses made by social movements, environmental justice organisations and activists. 

Converging trends, common threads 

The web of planetary crises serves as context for multistakeholder initiatives and mechanisms to intensify and advance their objectives, priorities and solutions to solve the multiple environmental and climate crises. The signalling of crises is what Marxist geographer David Harvey refers to as the third pillar that drives “accumulation by dispossession”, or concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few and those already with capital by robbing the public of their resources. According to Harvey, this is a new form of imperialism that characterises the neoliberal capitalist model of development since the 1970s. Extending his analysis to the current context means two things: one, (re)valuation of nature as capital, an economic asset which fundamentally puts a price on all the dimensions, services and functions of nature (eg ecosystem services, water purification by pristine watersheds or carbon sequestration of forests and oceans); and two: drawing in nature into financialised markets (financialisation) and in effect, simultaneously locking them into the boom and bust of the financial world as well as distancing or dislocating them from their places of origins, histories, relations with people and communities that rely on them. But there is also a third more recent development that the World Economic Forum (WEF) and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) have put forward in their new report The Future of Nature and Business: a new sustainability buzzword, “nature-positive solutions”, with corporations and industry as the central actors in the realisation of such solutions. 

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Against this backdrop, I have identified five common threads that undergird the slogans, objectives and agenda of environment and climate governance-focussed MSIs: i) nature as an accumulation strategy, ii) the dawn of new sustainability buzzwords, iii) perpetuating colonial legacies, iv) close collaboration among selected scientists, transnational conservation NGOs, UN agencies and businesses, and v) democratic governance deficit. 

Nature as capital and accumulation strategy 

Since the UN Conference on Sustainable Development Rio +20, the “green economy” as the solution to the triple challenges of people, planet and profit has taken centre stage in global public policy spaces, with various articulations and reinventions. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) defines the green economy as “one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”. Its promotion by multiple development actors, especially by the UNEP, has engendered other corporate-led initiatives such as the Natural Capital Declaration, which emphasises the role of the corporate and financial sectors in solving the deepening ecological and climate crises (eg creation of green markets and species trading/banking), and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), which seeks to develop models to monetise, marketise and commodify nature and the services it provides. The Natural Declaration of Capital, which was signed by top chief executives, and various global corporations with the support of UNEP during the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, contend that:

“Natural Capital comprises Earth’s natural assets (soil, air, water, flora and fauna), and the ecosystem services resulting from them, which make human life possible. Ecosystem goods and services from Natural Capital are worth trillions of US dollars per year and constitute food, fibre, water, health, energy, climate security and other essential services for everyone. Neither these services, nor the stock of Natural Capital that provides them, are adequately valued compared to social and financial capital. Despite being fundamental to our wellbeing, their daily use remains almost undetected within our economic system. Using Natural Capital this way is not sustainable. The private sector, governments, all of us, must increasingly understand and account for our use of Natural Capital and recognise the true cost of economic growth and sustaining human wellbeing today and into the future.” 

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This declaration is significant as it signals the corporate and financial sector’s “commitment” to work towards integrating Natural Capital considerations into their visions, strategies, operations, products and services. It also ushers in the capitalist invasion into nature that estimates 17 ecosystem services and 16 biomes in economic terms; that is, they are valued to be in the range of at least $16-54 trillion. The Natural Capital Coalition, a global MSIM, grew out of such initiatives. Originally established in 2012 as the TEEB For Business Coalition and hosted by London-based Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, the Natural Capital Coalition is a global multistakeholder, open-source platform that seeks to mainstream the development of methods for natural capital valuation in business. Along with the WBCSD, it co-created the Natural Capital Protocol, a standardised global framework for including natural capital in decision-making focused on businesses. It has recently worked on creating regional platforms with a focus on Brazil, Colombia, West Africa, Australia, South Africa, the US, the United Arab Emirates, Spain and Scotland. These regional platforms bring together various players at the national, sub-national, local and regional levels to advance natural capital thinking and approach. Headed by Mark Gough, the Natural Capital Coalition’s governance structure remains unclear (at least from their website), but it is made up of almost 300 organisations (and engages many thousands more) categorised into seven broad stakeholder groups: business, finance, conservation and civil society, government and policy, science and academia, standard setters and disclosure and membership organisations. Some of the corporations involved are food and beverage companies like Coca-Cola, giant retailer Walmart, water MNCs Suez and Thames Water, oil and power companies such as Shell, Total and Indian TNC Tata; IFIs and development finance such as the World Bank, International Finance Corporation, and the European Investment Bank; transnational conservation organisations such as International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International; research institutes such as World Resources Institute and Center for International Forestry Research; US- and UK-based universities; tons of auditing firms; UN agencies such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); investment funds and commercial banks; philanthropies such as the Rockefeller Foundation; and existing standard-setting MSIs such as Climate Disclosures Standards Board, Gold Standard and Global Reporting Initiative. 

What is also certain is that the MSIM deploys multistakeholderism in many of their projects, one of which is TEEBAgriFood, which advocates for the Evaluation Framework and Operational Guidelines for Businesses through training, convening roundtables, joint research, etc. This is part of a global UNEP project generously supported by the EU, with the “overall goal of building resilience, mainstreaming best practice, protecting biodiversity and contributing to a more sustainable agriculture and food sector in seven EU partner countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico and Thailand”. In the project, they not only engage with multiple “stakeholders” but also encourage the application of the Evaluation Framework as a new approach to assess eco-agri-food systems through the measurement and valuation of ecosystem services as inputs to food systems as well as linking them with food and population health.

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