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).
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.