Conservation and capitalism: on your Marx, get set, GO!

I recently attended a conference at the University of Toronto entitled “Grabbing ‘Green’: Questioning the Green Economy”. This was part of a series of linked conferences held over the past few years that bring together scholars who critically analyse the relations between biodiversity conservation and neoliberal processes such as commodification, marketisation and privatisation. Academics working in this field have identified various problems with so-called ‘neoliberal conservation’, as reviewed by Buscher et al 2012. Over the last few years I have enjoyed getting to know this literature, and more recently I have enjoyed getting to know personally some of its leading authors. I think that they have identified deep and serious problems with the neoliberal turn in conservation. At the same time, I have often been frustrated by the dense and difficult style in which much of this literature is written, and by the way it sometimes paints a picture of conservationists that doesn’t fit well with my own experience (a point made by Kent Redford here).

Neoliberal conservation in action in Canada

Neoliberal conservation in action in Canada

Given my interest in the work of this academic community, it was with a sense of real anticipation that I set off for Toronto. So how did it go? On the one hand, I heard some really excellent papers and discussions, and I enjoyed presenting my own work and receiving constructive feedback on it. I have high hopes that this will lead to some fruitful new research and collaborations. On the other hand, I found some aspects of the conference quite depressing and frustrating, for reasons I will try to explain.

To begin with the positives, I saw interesting presentations from a number of scholars whose work was unfamiliar to me but which I will be reading in future. To give just a few examples, Mark Hudson provided a rather bleak account of how eco-certification schemes (including Fair Trade) have been hollowed out over the last decade, and of the sheer hard work involved in trying to be an ethical consumer; Connor Cavanagh, David Himmelfarb and Adrian Nel presented excellent papers on their work in Uganda – the site of my own PhD research and so of great interest to me; Elizabeth Lunstrum spoke about the power of fences on the border between South Africa and Mozambique and their impact on sovereignty in the spaces between states. Hearing new work from unfamiliar people is the great joy of conferences, and incredibly difficult to replicate through videoconferencing. This creates a real moral dilemma given the carbon implications of long range travel, but that is for another day.

The aspect of the conference that got me down related to the problem of identifying alternatives to neoliberal conservation. There was a high level of consensus among meeting participants that the trend for growing links between conservation, markets and the private sector is problematic. However, convincing those involved in these processes to do anything about it is very difficult in the absence of constructive alternatives. Coming up with such alternatives is particularly challenging because Grabbing Green research was mostly (and deliberately) focused on systemic issues, whereas conservationists and their organisations might understandably prefer pragmatic solutions that work within the prevailing political economic system. As Dennis Soron said during one of the discussion sessions in Toronto: “There is a disjuncture between what is rational within the system versus the irrationality of the system.”

One session of the conference sought to address these challenges head on by trying to identify some practical alternatives. However, while the presentations were very interesting and theoretically rich, I was disappointed by the lack of any really tangible ideas or roadmap for action. This isn’t a criticism of the speakers – if the starting point is that the entire global political economic system needs to change before we can establish a just and sustainable world, then it isn’t surprising that tangible ideas about how to get there are hard to come by. I wonder though whether this starting point was too ambitious – I would have liked to hear some discussion of more moderately radical ideas like a return to bigger government with tougher regulation, or perhaps a hefty carbon tax – but these were not mentioned.

Unfortunately the Q & A following this session got rather bogged down in debate about interpretations of the work of Karl Marx and other philosophers. These debates are certainly important in a theoretical sense, and I recognise that there is a need for such scholarship. But to my mind, in the one session of the conference that set out to discuss alternative approaches, it would have been good to focus on something more practical. I’m afraid to say that I ended this session feeling very pessimistic – both about the way the world is going and the ability of academics to do anything about it. This reminded me of how I felt after seeing Jeremy Jackson’s lecture on the state of the world’s oceans at the SCCS in Cambridge two years ago, which is really saying something.

I came away from the conference re-affirmed in my view that the critical scholarship of many of those present is of great importance to conservation. However, I see two problems that are limiting its influence on conservation practice. First, I don’t think the message of this research is getting through to conservationists or other decision makers. For example, some research I have recently been involved in shows that many conservationists have never heard of the term ‘neoliberalism’ in relation to conservation, or have no understanding of it. Given that this is a key term in the critical scholarship presented at Grabbing Green, there is clearly a communication problem that needs to be addressed. Unless critical scholars can be audible to and understood by non-specialists, what chance is there that their arguments will be acted upon? Second, even when the message is heard loud and clear, the scale of the problem and the lack of any obvious alternatives severely constrain the possibility of action. Is radical scholarship capable of suggesting what might be done to address the problems it identifies? If so, where should we look for ideas about what to do?

Perhaps the best we can hope for is more open discussion of these challenges between social scientists and conservation practitioners.  If they can forge a common language, and create a coherent conversation, then maybe new and practical ideas will emerge. It doesn’t sound like much, but it may be a start.


18 thoughts on “Conservation and capitalism: on your Marx, get set, GO!

  1. Here is one good example of a platform for critical work to be communicated to a wider audience: The University of Arizona Public Political Ecology Lab (PPEL) Please leave a comment if you know of any others

  2. Hi Chris. You raise some really good points here. I also appreciate the contribution you made at the conference. Your paper is a good reminder that conservation practitioners are not simply unthinking proponents of market initiatives – perhaps something that isn’t well enough or often enough acknowledged in the critical literature. In my own research I’ve sought out (perhaps with limited success) pragmatic voices to keep my critiques leveled. I try to bear in mind (but sometimes need to be reminded) that practitioners do genuinely care about environmental *and social* justice. I’m glad that you’ve made me think about these things again.

    My only comment on what you’ve written above is that I think many more alternatives are being articulated by radical / critical scholars than you’ve acknowledged – I’m thinking of the Kilburn Manifesto and emerging forms of governance that take an anarchist / libertarian-socialist form. Perhaps where radical / critical scholarship has been deficient is in connecting the well-formed alternatives that do exist to critiques of the status quo – my paper at the conference was certainly guilty of that.

    Part of the issue, though, may be that many of us hold a firm belief that the solution to the world’s problems lies in radical structural transformation, and cannot be achieved in mere adjustments to what already exists. A “cautious pragmatist” may be willing to accept certain ideas if they make incremental progress, but more radical scholars may not feel those are enough if they do not upset existing power structures. This, of course, presents a real challenge for dialogue between social scientists and practitioners. Thank you for helping to bring a little more understanding between the two perspectives.

    Twitter: @bmatulis

    • The challenge is not the subject matter but the fact that social scientists will not speak to practitioners!
      Imagine the subject matter is a box. Scientists are trained to sit outside the box and be objective. Under no circumstances must they get into the box. They scratch away at the box from the outside and peel off layer after layer slowly understanding the nature of the box. Practitioners on the other hand are in the box and see lots of trouble spots on the inside surface and can direct scientists to scratch away in more productive corners. If only scientists would listen to the scream of practitioners – but unfortuneately they are totally locked up in their objective religion and have become the very thing they oppose.

      • Hi. Thanks for the comment. I understand your impression that academics adhere to objectivity in unrealistic ways. That certainly has been true at times throughout history. And it remains true of many in the physical and natural sciences. Most of us who were at the conference, however, were social scientists. And among our community there is a resounding rejection of the myth of objectivity. The problem you (and Chris) identify, however, is very real – dialogue between critical academics and practitioners is less than adequate. I don’t think I’d use the words “social scientists *will not* speak to practitioners”, but rather that they don’t speak often enough or in the same language.

  3. [this is a copy-paste of a reply to Chris over email, but perhaps worthwhile posting here]:

    Hi Chris

    Thanks for this, and writing the blog. I think it is a really interesting reflection, and I can totally imagine some of your disappointment. Perhaps there were different expectations regarding the vital alternatives sessions, and I think people also came to the session with – or more generally, people have – different ideas about how change works.

    I think, if I get you right, or at least if I understand somewhat where you are coming from and what you are interested in more generally (including from the blogpost), that for you, and many others, alternatives have to at least include practical pathways, or ‘really tangible ideas or a roadmap for action’, as you state: things that can be proposed and worked on. And while I am totally convinced that these are necessary and important, I am no longer convinced that these are the most important. Indeed, I feel that the pressure to want to propose ‘practical’ things is part and parcel of the contemporary political economy and what I believe Hannah Arendt criticised and contextualised so poignantly. Her plea is for a political realm where roadmaps do not lead to action, but to (non-tangible!) ideas, philosophies, arts, cultural exchange, wisdom, etc: the things in life that really matter. But whereas this was hard to imagine in the 1950s, when capitalism was dominant, it is almost impossible to imagine now, when neoliberal capitalism is hegemonic and has totally colonised our imaginaries. It is indeed the hardest thing to do: to forfeit a practical roadmap, as it does not make one feel ‘productive’ in addressing the/a problem. And this, again, is precisely Arendt’s point: how to build a world where production / being productive has its place but doesn’t dominate other forms of being? To build a world where proposing something seemingly productive, practical or action-oriented will not almost automatically lead to the stimulating of the same passions, rationales – and effects – that current capitalism has?

    To answer that question requires thinking about an alternative and much broader theory of change – one that I think the session was after. Again, I fully understand if it is disappointing if one seeks more practical courses of action (ones that, to be sure, I think are highly necessary and very important). But I hope the session might also have made some people think about change differently, and reassess the need to open up new imaginaries for/about change, and indeed about the world more generally, vis-a-vis the need for roadmaps, tangible ideas and practical action. Which should come first? Or perhaps they should go together? I think the latter, with perhaps the imaginaries being slightly more important…

    All the best and keep the blogs coming,


    • Capitalists are the enemy of nature; Conservationists are the enemy of nature; Capitalists are conservationists; Nature is very destructive; People need stability.

      It is not the capitalists who have upset the balance of nature over the past 200 years – it is the scientists who are funded by the capitalists. It is the science community that needs to look at the state of its own integrity and it is the geographers who will provide them with the template of answers.

    • You are right Bram – It is not a social scientists place to be action productive but productivity is a necessary force for our survival. This is why all scientists need practitioner partners – people who know how to do and what to try. That is how the industrial revolution was powered. ie the partnership between brilliant minds and brilliant craftsmen. You guys are missing your craftsmen because capitalists have replaced them with machines

  4. Thanks for a very interesting post (and for a consistently excellent and thoughtful blog). The dilemmas you mention are common to many fields of policy and action where practitioners are under enormous pressure to justify what they do in terms that simply commodify and monetise their work: arts organisations, for example, are required in the UK always to explain and justify what they do in terms of value for money, contribution to local growth, etc. The logic of this within the system is clear: it makes sense to the paymasters – nothing else seems to – and it is a means of financial survival and political support for the arts sector. But the very process of neoliberalised accountability tends to make appeals to all non-market values sound vague, self-serving, abstract and unmeasurable. The same process is going on with conservation.
    What has to be done to counter this is complex, hard to pin down – and ultimately everything depends on the political defeat of neoliberalism, which is still far off, though not as far as it was before the Crash of 2008. I believe that every proposal for funding and support that relies on a compulsory appeal to neoliberal economic justifications and accounting must include an unapologetic and (at least) equally weighted account of all the other reasons why a project is vital: the existence of alternative and deeper accounts of value has to be kept visible.
    One setting in which this can be done is in the local planning system. Again, here money talks loudest, but even now does not always win – see for example the successful resistance of Totnes as a community to every application for a mega-chain coffee store, on the grounds of cultural diversity, local democracy and eco-economic vitality. Opposition to wind power (which I regret) is based on the defence of local landscape values as well as property values. Etc. It is small stuff and the System of neoliberal commodification is not yet troubled much by alternative visions of value, accountability and desired futures. But the resistance is alive.

  5. The disappointment with the “lack of any really tangible ideas or roadmap for action” is understandable, and familiar. One thing that often gets overlooked here is pedagogy. People trained as scholars are trained to critique and “apply” different theories to “cases”— there is little in graduate school training about inventing, communicating, or testing new ideas; or building roadmaps. So it’s hard to fault people for not doing one thing when they spent 5+ years learning to do something else, and was told that was what was expected; when the critique is incentivized. People know they are supposed to put a sentence in grant proposals saying their work will inform “policymakers”, and often that’s as far as it goes.

    But we (academics) spend much time talking about reforming research to be more practical and action-oriented, and often overlook that other component of our jobs: teaching, which could be quite effective— I mean in terms of designing courses or educational experiences around creating alternatives instead of / in addition to writing critique. When you have 100 or so people a year you’re working with who are then going to go out and do things in the world, teaching is a huge opportunity for provoking change. We need a pedagogy that does this.

    That said, I really enjoyed Bram’s post as well. There are certainly ways in which the pressure to be “action-oriented” and display “results” and “impacts” obscures other important matters. I agree about the opening of imaginaries and practical actions arising together; informing & shaping one another. great to read all these things here.

    • I take it you guys are social scientists. Your posts read as if you are an island community of individuals. I can understand pure scientists locking themselves away in a room in an introverted state but social scientists by definition must encompass and seek out the whole of society in their research. Social scientists must help scientists to connect.

  6. I haven’t a clue what any of you guys are talking about and as a passionate conservation practitioner this upsets me. How can I make informed decisions if I can’t understand a word that academics utter. I recently found the Alan Alda website for teaching scientists to communicate with mere mortals! At what point did English cease to be enough?
    The last thing that the world wants is conservation as it has a long history of change and evolution. Instead it is humanity who desires stability of habitat to protect their investments. We stand against nature when we conserve it. If we want to save the world then we must come to an understanding that everything is important including neglect and devastation. The trick is in knowing when to restore balance. That job can only be undertaken by a soul of extreme integrity and that is ultimately our only problem. The man who has the greatest integrity is the man who is not alive.

  7. I will give you the beginning of a roadmap for action. If you want to undermine the extremes of capitalism and make it sustainable, then you must seek out “The Lost People”. It is they who are nature’s secret weapon, genetically cached and globally dispersed in places that capitalists dare not tread. “The Lost People” are the waste product of capitalism and it is through communicating with them that you will be able to advise governments on how to bring the whole mechanism back into balance.

  8. In reply to Brett: Thank you for your reply. I am delighted to hear that the might of objectivity is being challenged within social science circles. I have been studying the communication mechanisms between objective and subjective practitioners and I agree that “they don’t speak often enough or in the same language”. The connection of individuals with different perspectives is very difficult to begin with but once mastered, the benefits are immense. I believe this is what all our communities are missing.

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  10. Having worked until recently for a government conservation agency and working at times closely with government economists I have been self consciously part of the neoliberal shift in the UK. I am surprised at the degree to which this has escalated in the UK since the publication of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. As a practitioner what interests me is were decisions are made and within what frame of reference. My perception is that neoliberal thinking may be endemic in central government, but this is less so elsewhere; but this is just surmise on my part. Important decisions which impact upon biodiversity are of course made by many institutions and individuals and I would suggest a better grasp of this reality, as opposed to thinking in terms of influencing “policy makers” (a vastly over simplistic way of interpreting where decisions are made) would be enormously clarifying for all concerned. Understanding the way in which those involved with decisions, including the electorate, think about nature – I here avoid use of the term value – would I suggest also be clarifying. It may well be dissonant with neoliberalism. I note that species decline, extinction and habitat loss still form a large part of the biodiversity narrative in the media as opposed to neoliberal perspectives; implicitly as unalloyed “bad things to happen” . John Hopkins

    • Governments can only make decisions about policy, nothing else. In my experience as an employer there is only one man who makes decisions that count and that is “the man with the spade”. The governing body who thinks that reason alone is enough for a man to dig is foolish indeed. Yet this is what we face today in our society. Planning for conservation needs more than reason, it needs masses of information and unconditional commitment from professionals, neither of which are readily available.

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  12. Most enlightening. I stumbled upon this. The issue of que es Social Science is rightly raised. That gets to Marx or more properly, Marx Engels, which remains the guide to the debate. Yes, I understand it is tedious to get lost in the nuances of Kapital or to wrestle again the bête noir of neoliberalism. But therein is the struggle. To embrace Marx is to take a side in the struggle. The truth is ever elusive but the path of truth is blazed through the thickets of class struggle. By being Marxist we not only have the power of the logic but also the immersion in struggle. Let’s go.

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