Trees don’t grow on money – or why you don’t get to rebel against extinction

Money doesn’t grow on trees, and although people can make money out of trees, they cannot make trees out of money. This much may seem platitudinous, but it is worth keeping in mind.

What is true of trees is true of the natural world as a whole, including the human beings that are part of it. Nature is real; money is an abstraction. If money seems real that is because our institutions and practices are so deeply premised on beliefs in it. There is an important sense in which those institutionalized beliefs – in crediting it with a certain value – make money real; but it is not real in the way the natural world is real. If a bank goes bust, if a whole economy crashes, the social upheaval that follows may be immense, but life goes on – people will pick themselves up and start again (and some people, meanwhile, will likely have found a way to profit from it!). By contrast, if a species goes extinct, if an ecosystem collapses, then there is no prospect – certainly not on human timescales – of a recovery. The threat of extinction to our own species is the ultimate threat.

Extinction Rebellion has given publicity to critically important concerns of our time – the ecological crises as exemplified by dangerous climate change and biodiversity loss.[1] But it also gives rise to some perplexity.

A circumstantial puzzle is how an apparently spontaneous social movement of protest comes to have the energetic backing of big business interests and even to receive notable support from influential sections of the corporate media.

On deeper reflection, what does it even mean to stage a rebellion against extinction? Rebellions usually involve a group of people rising up to protest or overthrow another group that wields unjust or illegitimate power over them. How can you ‘rebel’ against extinction? It is not as if you can choose to disobey the laws of nature.

The website that asserts the copyright © Extinction Rebellion, states certain demands directed at government.[2] The moral clarity of their seemingly simple message, however, could be deceptive.[3]

Two key demands are: “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.”

These may sound like goals that any ethically rational person could wholeheartedly endorse, and yet, as a recent critical study by Cory Morningstar has demonstrated, what their pursuit entails does not necessarily correspond to what people might imagine.[4]

First, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero does not mean eliminating emissions, or even necessarily reducing them at all. It refers to the possibility of engaging in other activities to offset them. The offsetting may be accomplished by various means of  technological fixes and/or accounting innovations, but what these means have in common is that they will be profitable to engage in. As was made explicit some years ago in the influential Stern Review of climate economics, a policy approach allowing emissions offsetting creates great opportunities for businesses and the financial sector.

‘Capital markets, banks and other financial institutions will have a vital role in raising and allocating the trillions of dollars needed to finance investment in low-carbon technology and the companies producing the new technologies.’ (Stern 2006: 270)

‘The development of carbon trading markets also presents an important opportunity to the financial sector. Trading on global carbon markets is now worth over $10bn annually’. (Stern 2006: 270)

By attaching a price to carbon, a whole new commodity is created over which the distribution of rights represents a new income stream. So it’s good for shareholder profits, but what about nature? How confident can we be when its protection relies on a new multi-billion dollar market involving the same people responsible for the global financial crisis?

The other key goal, to halt biodiversity loss, sounds like one that should not allow wriggle room for profiteers to game it. And yet, consider for a moment how one might propose – even with the best and purest of intentions – to bring biodiversity loss to a halt. The sheer extent of activities around the world that are undermining habitats and ecological systems is so great and complex, it is hard to conceive what exactly could and should be done, even given determined political will to do it. The proposed policy in reality, therefore, is not literally to stop doing everything we are currently doing that compromises biodiversity. Instead, it once again centres on putting a price on the aspects of nature that market actors attach value to. The premise is that if we accept it is not possible to halt the destruction of biodiversity in some places, it is still possible to protect and even re-create biodiversity in others. Thus, just as with carbon emissions, the ideas of substitution and compensation play a pivotal role: biodiversity loss may not be literally halted, but it can be offset.

And how is biodiversity loss to be offset?[5] Here comes the familiar move: in order to weigh the loss in one place against a putative gain in another they must be subjected to a common scheme of measurement. Biodiversity being something of value, the way to record how much value any instance of it has is taken to be by reference to monetary price. Hence we learn that ‘biodiversity conservation and the related concept of “natural capital” are becoming mainstream. For instance, the Natural Capital Coalition is developing the economic case for valuing natural ecosystems and includes buy-in from some of the biggest players in business, accountancy and consulting. And the financial industry is moving toward more responsible investing.’[6]

Yet this unidimensional quantification of value completely disregards the point that biodiversity is a complex and quintessentially qualitative phenomenon. It is of the essence of biodiversity that its biotic components and their environments are diverse. Being diverse means being different in ways that cannot be reduced to the measure of a single common denominator. Hence the essence of biodiversity is an irreducible plurality of incommensurables. The idea of ‘compensating’ for loss of biodiversity of one kind by the protection or enhancement of biodiversity of another kind elsewhere means disregarding the very meaning of biodiversity.[7]

The idea of biodiversity offsets, then, does not have its rational basis in ecological concern but in the expansionary logic of capitalist profit seeking.

A rebellion that really has any prospect of fending off disaster for our biosphere and ourselves needs to be based on a proper understanding of who and what needs to be rebelled against.

Extinction Rebellion publicity material says that it is apolitical. Yet there is nothing apolitical about the real struggle that is required for people to seize the power currently concentrated in the hands of plutocrats. And to those who say – rightly – that ecological issues are greater than mere politics, it may be responded that this is why we cannot let it be “dealt with” by those who currently so misuse their political power.

Asking governments to enact policies that corporate and financial backers are lining up to draw massive profits from is not what the people protesting against impending ecological disaster have in mind. It needs therefore to be clear that you can’t actually protest against disaster. You need to take on those who are driving us towards it. So you need to know who they are and how they are doing it. It’s a good idea to look carefully at who is shaping the demands you are being enlisted to make, and what exactly they entail.

land-savings

[1] For other, less discussed but no less significant problems, see Rockström et al. (2009).

[2] Why they are directed at government without reference to the central role of powerful corporations is not completely obvious, and nor is the reason why the site also says the protest is ‘apolitical’, a question to be returned to.

[3] We humans, especially the worst off – and not even to mention members of other species we share the planet with – certainly have powerful reasons for concern at the ecological crises being provoked by our collective global exploitation of the biosphere. But what “we” can do about that is nothing like as clear.

In fact, there is no “we” that can act as a collective. There are multifarious different people, groups, tribes, classes, and nations that have competing interests. “We” are not organized to respond in a concerted, ethical and rational manner.

On the other hand, a very small group of people – who alone command as much of the world’s aggregate resources as half the rest of the world’s population put together – is very well coordinated. At the highest levels of corporations and financial institutions they hold great power. With their immense wealth comes control over those – including politicians, journalists and various “thought leaders” – who exercise greatest influence over publics. Their power to manipulate public perceptions vastly exceeds most people’s awareness of it.

So we – ordinary members of the public, whether old or young – can protest and engage in symbolic actions and go green in aspects of our lifestyle, yet to real little effect. In our heart of hearts we may know this, and yet we may still believe it important to try and to act as we think all should. So when the makings of a real social movement appear, we energetically embrace the opportunity it appears to present for making some more noticeable impact. Hence the enthusiastic welcome of Extinction Rebellion, in which school kids and pensioners have united around the moral and existential cause.

But what sort of ‘rebellion’ is it that is conjured into action by a consortium of corporate-backed organizations and given extensive positive coverage in the corporate media? The commitments and beliefs of the multifarious individuals and groups on the ground are various and sincerely held, and they do tend to converge around something like the headline goals stated in the publicity material ©Extinction Rebellion. But the exact goals being endorsed focus on two very specific demands: “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.” And in this post I am arguing that it is very easy to be misled into thinking these capture what we really want to achieve, whereas in reality they may in fact capture our acquiescence in the further extension of corporate power over the natural world and our own lives.

[4] Morningstar’s set of six articles makes for somewhat demanding reading, and her purposes have sometimes been misunderstood or misrepresented on the basis of apparently rather casual perusal. Certainly, this has been noticeable in comments on Twitter, so I tried to distil some of her key points, without her detail or her critics’ distractions, in a Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/Tim_Hayward_/status/1120748645069021185

[5] Some useful introductory sources are World Rainforest Movement: http://www.wrongkindofgreen.org/tag/green-economy/; Clive Spash 25 minute talk: https://vimeo.com/33921592; and the collection of material here: http://naturenotforsale.org/author/berberv/

[6] Richard Pearson, ‘We have 15 years to halt biodiversity loss, can it be done?’, The Conversation, 26 Oct 2015 https://theconversation.com/we-have-15-years-to-halt-biodiversity-loss-can-it-be-done-49330.

[7] For a pithy presentation of the basic ideas here see the short video ‘Biodiversity offsetting, making dreams come truehttps://vimeo.com/99079535.

References

Rockström, Johan et al. (2009), ‘A Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Nature 461: 472–75.

Stern, Nicholas et al. (2006), Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, London: HM Treasury.

greta surrounded

This entry was posted in climate change, environment, environmental ethics, media, political philosophy, responsible investment, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Trees don’t grow on money – or why you don’t get to rebel against extinction

  1. mato48 says:

    Environmental movements frequently get hijacked by industry and financial establishment. Therefore: Camouflage, move at night, coordinate via informal communication channels, be creative and surprise them (everything else what needs to be done and how it has to be done you have to imagine by yourself).


  2. Charles Young says:

    Why on earth do many so-called learned and well-intentioned folks still boringly repeat the received wisdom that a 0.04% co2 life gas that greens Mother Earth is some kind of lethal poison?
    It’s known what the real drivers of climate are, and it’s certainly not the absurd co2 scapegoat mind-bendingly stupidly chosen by god knows who!
    Who of any real intelligence seriously believes the ‘catastrophic climate change’ mantra? Simple observation allows your ‘eyes wide shut’ to see that this is not the case.
    As a teenager in the 1970’s, I remember the media-vehicled folly in the UK that a new mini ice-age was about to freezingly pounce upon us! In Scotland there were training courses organised to learn how to build igloos!! You’ve guessed it, it was fear-mongering blatant gobshite. Lunatic fringes and other ‘usual suspects’ were most probably behind this.
    Since the Middle Ages, the globe’s temperature has naturally risen by a sky is falling 1.4 degrees celsius. The end of the world is nigh. 50 billion years ago the average temperature was about 17 degrees celsius warmer than it is today. Caused by humans and their deadly fart gas? Evidently no.
    I could go on, but won’t. I believe it’s time for the agitated and concerned anti-capitalist intellectuals to see through the thickish fog of illusion and confusion and change their discourse away from the co2 hot air fiction spewed out by government-paid organisations like the IPCC/Giec who apparently still cling onto Arrenhius’ 190 year old unscientific co2 hypothesis. John Tyndall’s too.
    Combat pollution and eventual bio-diversity killings and loss. Why not associate yourselves with the courageous Dane Wigington and his belief that geoengineerig is the single greatest threat to the world in we live! Bonne journée.

    • Len Wilkinson says:

      Charles Young, wonderful and my views are the same. May I have your permission to use your dialogue, in my blog and as a reply to the misguided ones who for example tell me to get real. I will of course always credit you as the author. My email is: lennywspain@gmail.com
      Respect
      Len

    • … and when the seas are lapping at your door, you’ll still believe that capitalism will solve everything. Look, we’ll admire you more for admitting you were wrong. Just stop with all this nonsense, okay? Your personal observations are near-worthless. Surely you can understand that. Few if any reputable climate scientists dispute the reality that the climate is warming, the seas are rising, the ice caps are melting and that severe weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe. This site is simple and won’t take long. If you have an open and sceptical approach, you will change your mind:

      https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/climate-change-evidence-causes/

    • david blackall says:

      True.

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  4. barovsky says:

    Excellent piece Tim! I’ve ‘joined’ my local XR posse here in Lambeth (London) and tried to get them to be more critical of the ‘apolitical’ line of XR but to no avail. I’ve posted links to this piece, which is, by the way, far superior to the Morningstar piece you refer to, which seems to be caught up in grand conspiracy theory, totally unnecessry really. But can we consider XR as a ‘way station’ onto something more meaningful?

  5. Toby Russell says:

    Thank you for this well researched and important article.

    It seems to me that the one sustainable act and response to the rapacity of perpetual-growth economics is abstention from consumerism twinned with the creation of meaningful participation in your community to create lasting wealth. It’s a very old and obvious response but not any less effective or practical for it.

    The Powers That Be seek to seduce, deceive and bewitch their way into how we form our desires. Being aware that this is happening to varying degrees on every mass-media and many alt-media channels is part of abstention. We may trust nothing, be skeptical about everything, but open to each other as human beings looking humbly for alternatives, prepared to experiment and fail, ready to learn and be wrong, and persistent enough to screw up our courage for almost endless cycles of this uncertain process of discovery.

  6. O Society says:

    Tim ~
    Added some artwork and a reference or two to amplify the sound. Thank you for sharing your work with us.
    ~ O

    https://opensociet.org/2019/04/29/trees-dont-grow-on-money-or-why-you-dont-get-to-rebel-against-extinction/

  7. dblackal says:

    For forty-five years I have run a wildlife refuge in rainforest in Australia. Biology and science were my first teaching subjects that earned the money to pay for it. I have also conducted fieldwork with university students in various areas like determining biodiversity. Carbon Dioxide has nothing to do with the loss of such species, rather deforestation in particular has everything to do with it. Next is the increasing amount of pollution that poisons soils, water and ocean. The greenhouse effect does not have an effect on the species, they have survived temperature increase and decrease before. It is criminal to mislead the public on such important matters and those at the front of such campaigns are likely to be making profit or power gains. I have always supported clean energy production, free of the toxic gases like sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides. It is time to get this straight.

  8. dblackal says:

    For forty-five years I have run a wildlife refuge in a rainforest in Australia. Biology and science were my first teaching subjects and this earned the money to pay for it. I have recently conducted fieldwork with university master of science students in determining biodiversity on my refuge. Carbon Dioxide has nothing to do with the loss of species; rather deforestation, in particular, has everything to do with it. Next is the increasing amount of pollution that poisons soils, water and ocean. The theoretical greenhouse effect does not have an effect on species diversity, they have survived temperature increases and decreases in many times before. This is evidenced in the rocks and ice cores and such temperature changes are driven by the sun. It is criminal to mislead the public on such important matters and those at the front of these campaigns are likely to be making profit or power gains. I have always supported clean energy production, free of the toxic gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides that come from the burning of coal. It is time to get this straight – carbon dioxide is a trace gas that is not toxic, and it is the least worrisome of the greenhouse gases. Stop land clearing, especially in the Amazon, as large forests are critical for cloud formation throughout the world and we must reduce to nothing the pollution that poisons everything from microbes to man. It is the giant corporations that pollute in vast quantities, as does war.

  9. crank says:

    This is excellent Tim. Too many otherwise critical thinkers are ignorant of (- or are willingly blinkered about) the road that the current wave of protest seems to be taking us down.
    Climate change is the most politcal issue that there is. It was what politicised my thinking 30 years ago, and still does today.
    I think that most who have tried to uncover the underlying tensions which drive ecological destruction generally (and climate change most pressingly), end up focusing attention on the system of private, profit driven finance and our monetary/ banking system. We find ourselves confronted with an unstoppable force (climate change) meeting an immovable object (the ‘capitalist realism’ of a world where the values of the market have colonised all policy, all government, all thinking).
    In light of these it seems unsurprising that there emerge individuals and groups who simply want to avoid any deeper questions and accept that any action is preferable, even if it can only take place within the current paradigm, no matter how (self) contradictory.
    It is a trajedy of denial, as unsettling as the denial of fact that the science of global warming is compelling and urgent.

  10. Gundel says:

    Great article. Very thought-provoking

  11. Ed says:

    We need to reduce World GDP and population size to one that the World can sustain for the long term. Everything else is a distraction and will fail.

    I don’t think there is any evidence that Humanity is willing to discuss, let alone voluntarily reduce either of these. The Standard Run prediction in the Limits to Growth will play out. (Readers will need to do an internet search for this, if you haven’t heard of it, I’m afraid)

    • barovsky says:

      So how do you plan your Malthusian extermination of the ‘excess’ population? Gas chambers perhaps?

      • mato48 says:

        Gas chambers, eugenics, Malthusian catastrophe, are the smug responses of young men, who see reproduction as the main purpose of life. From a biological, evolutionary point of view they are certainly right, but as things stsand right now, we need to overcome our primal urges to avoid ecological armageddon.

        We have reached a point where global ecosystems are collapsing and their human designed artificial replacements are completely inadequate. Technological solutions (nuclear power, genetic modification, geo-engineering) make matters only worse. The only remedy one could think of is indeed a significant reduction of human population, together with the universal adaption of an extremely modest lifestyle.

        Less humans, and the remaining ones living modestly. It will happen in one way or the other — either intelligently managed by ourselves or forced upon us by resource scarcity, natural disasters, pandemics, mass poisoning by human introduced environmental toxins, and wars (about water, land, minerals, fossil fuels).

      • barovsky says:

        Young men eh? Well I’m 74 in a couple of days.

  12. Monica Legat says:

    Spot on Crank!

  13. barovsky says:

    Could it be that XR is actually a shill for ‘green capitalism’?

  14. wagelaborer says:

    Why the overwhelming focus on climate change in the first place? I grew up in Los Angeles, and knew, from choking on the smog, that internal combustion engines and factories were bad. I could see land being paved over to build more houses and freeways. I saw that more and more people added to the population made for crowding and road rage. I lived through fires and floods caused by humans building in the mountains. I saw dead animals on the side of the road every day.
    I knew, on a gut level, that destroying the environment in service of humans was bad. I think that most people have been through similar experiences, and that the reaction to the environmental destruction after WW2 was an uprising of Americans, which led to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the EPA and the Endangered Species Act.

    Clever, then, of our overlords, to change the emphasis on the invisible, instead of the visible, and to tell us that the financial sector can fix it, instead of laws which outlaw the razing of forests, the vacuuming of the oceans, the manufacture of plastic and herbicides and pesticides, and other very visible effects of human destruction on our planet.

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  16. Maura Framrose says:

    Reblogged this on Lens of Thought and commented:
    ‘The power to manipulate public perceptions vastly exceeds most people’s awareness of it’

  17. barovsky says:

    Here’s another link to a piece on XR that reveals the connection between XR and Chatham House via major ‘advisor’ to XR, Farhana Yamin:

    Farhana Yamin, who is described in XR’s blurb as ‘climate change lawyer and former lead author of the IPCC, coordinator of the Political Strategy Team and experienced UN negotiator’ appears to be playing a prominent role in the meetings. As Cory Morningstar has pointed out [6], Yamin has “spent 27 years in UN climate negotiations”, “helped midwife the 2015 Paris Agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions”, serves Greenpeace as a board member/trustee, will soon take up an advisory role at the World Wildlife Fund, and wants to build a bridge with existing organisations to forge a much bigger “movement of movements”. Let’s take a look at what kinds of organisations she might have in mind.

    “Yamin is the founder and CEO of Track 0: ” Track 0 is an independent, not-for-profit organization serving as a hub to support all those transitioning to a clean, fair and bright future for future generations around the world compatible with the goals set out in the Paris Agreement.” Partners of Track 0 include GCCA (TckTckTck), CAN (Climate Action Network), Avaaz, ClimateWorks (The Climate Group, We Mean Business), The Rockefeller Foundation, E3G (founder of GCCA), The Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group, European Climate Foundation and Chatham House.”

    “In addition to founding Track 0, Yamin is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a member of the Global Agenda Council on Climate Change at the World Economic Forum. Yamin served as an adviser to the European Commission on emissions trading directive from 1998-2002, later serving as special adviser to Connie Hedegaard, EU commissioner for climate action. She is lead author for three assessment reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on adaptation and mitigation issues. She continues to provide legal, strategy and policy advice to NGOs, foundations and developing nations on international climate change negotiations under the UNFCCC.”

    https://nowhere.news/index.php/2019/05/11/extinction-rebellion-and-the-theory-and-practice-of-oligarchical-collectivism/

  18. barovsky says:

    I’m afraid I’m increasingly of the opinion that XR is a scam, unfortunately. A lot of, especially young people, are involved in XR and judging by my local ‘chapter’, it’s spinning off into all kinds of connected issues but it has a messianic whiff to it, cultish . Now whether XR shifts from its carbon trading base onto challenging capitalist production and comsumption, remains to be seen.

    See this fro example: https://economicquestions.org/industrial-policy/

  19. Susan Butler says:

    XR is a cry from the heart on the part of educated, generous and responsible people. Picking it apart critically is less helpful than would be contributing to its evolution, if you think you know better. XR is the best response to our shared climate change dilemma going other than the schoolchildren’s strike.

    • barovsky says:

      Well I don’t know about the best response, right now it’s pretty much the ONLY response! And that’s problem aside from the fact that real target is capitalism. Yes, a lot of middle class white people shitting themselves but the real impact of global heating is 1000s of miles away in the impoverished countries that we’ve expoited for centuries. Where is XR on the calamity striking Asia and Africa?

    • Mathias Alexander says:

      Where does XR stand on geneticaly modified agriculture and carbon trading?

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