Governments Are Privatizing the Natural World
|September 12, 2012||Posted by Jeffery J. Smith under News|
Our rivers and natural resources are to be valued and commodified; would such a move benefit only the rich? Would public recovery of natural rents work better? We trim, blend, and append two 2012 articles from (1) The Guardian, Aug 7, on ecosystem markets by G. Monbiot and (2) Irish Independent, Aug 29, on taxing land by R. Lyons (Balliol College, Oxford).
by George Monbiot and by Ronan Lyons
The Great Impostors
In many countries, especially the United Kingdom, nature is being valued and commodified so that it can be exchanged for cash.
The last government commissioned a research company to produce a total annual price for England’s ecosystems. After taking the money, the company reported that this exercise was “theoretically challenging to complete, and considered by some not to be a theoretically sound endeavor”. Some of the services provided by England’s ecosystems, it pointed out, “may in fact be infinite in value”.
The current government is seeking to put a price on nature, then to create a market in its disposal. We don’t call it nature any more: now the proper term is “natural capital”. Natural processes have become “ecosystem services”, as they exist only to serve us. Hills, forests and river catchments are now “green infrastructure”, while biodiversity and habitats are “asset classes” within an “ecosystem market”.
Pricing nature and incorporating that price into the cost of goods and services creates an economic incentive for its protection.
However, payments for ecosystem services look to me like the prelude to the greatest privatization since Rousseau’s encloser first made an exclusive claim to the land. The government has already begun describing landowners as the “providers” of ecosystem services, as if they had created the rain and the hills and the rivers and the wildlife that inhabits them. They are to be paid for these services, either by the government or by “users”.
Land ownership since the time of the first impostor has involved the gradual accumulation of exclusive rights, which were seized from commoners. Payments for ecosystem services extend this encroachment by appointing the landlord as the owner and instigator of the wildlife, the water flow, the carbon cycle, the natural processes that were previously deemed to belong to everyone and no one.
Once a resource has been commodified, speculators and traders step in. The Ecosystem Markets Task Force now talks of “harnessing City financial expertise to assess the ways that these blended revenue streams and securitisations enhance the ROI [return on investment] of an environmental bond”. This gives you an idea of how far this process has gone — and of the gobbledegook it has begun to generate.
Already the government is developing the market for trading wildlife, by experimenting with what it calls biodiversity offsets. If a quarry company wants to destroy a rare meadow, for example, it can buy absolution by paying someone to create another somewhere else. The government warns that these offsets should be used only to compensate for “genuinely unavoidable damage” and “must not become a licence to destroy”. But once this market is functioning, for how long do you reckon that line will hold?
No longer will we be able to argue that an ecosystem or a landscape should be protected because it affords us wonder and delight; we’ll be told that its intrinsic value has already been calculated and, doubtless, that it turns out to be worth less than the other uses to which the land could be put.
Governments won’t need to regulate; the market will make the decisions that politicians have ducked.
JJS: While it feels good to complain about the behavior of those we put above us, I think we could do a better job of defending nature if we did a better job of digging deeper analytically. For example, for centuries government has exonerated polluters and depleters by limiting their liability, which is why corporations are called “limiteds” in Great Britain. That fundamental favoritism could be undone, done away with, so those liable pay any costs they impose upon others, upon customer, worker, or nature.
Also, only a few reap the “rents” that society pays for land and resources. That, too, could be undone, were government to implement a geonomic system of land dues (or land taxes) and “rent” dividends (or social services that benefit everyone equally). If everybody got some of the rent, then there would not be any leftover to grossly enrich just a few. No longer would there be just a few people with lots of money who could buy up everything. There wouldn’t be the wealthy insiders to get government to do their bidding. And there wouldn’t be an elite lording over the rest of us.
Problems caused by the concentration of wealth are problems solved by the public recovery and sharing of natural rents.
A Site-Value Tax
Site-value tax rewards those who use land well and punishes speculators and land-hoarders. Under a site-value tax, those sitting on derelict sites in Ireland’s town centres will be made to use it, sell it on, or pay for the privilege of wasting land. Compared to the alternatives, then, site-value tax could help kick-start Ireland’s economic recovery. And to Government ears, that is probably the most persuasive argument.
JJS: Could Ireland really be so close to public recovery of socially-generated location values? If they really made such a grand geonomic move, I could imagine me moving there in a heartbeat!
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