Environmentalism in crisis: neoliberal conservation and wilderness romanticism

Issue: 142

Ieuan Churchill

A review of Tony Juniper, What has Nature ever done for us? How Money really does grow on Trees (Profile Books, 2013), £9.99, and George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding
(Allen Lane, 2013), £11.99

In the time that has passed since the debacle of the Rio+20 conference in 2012, mainstream environmentalism has been tilting steadily towards political crisis. The crisis is not one of legitimacy—the evidence for widespread ecological destruction grows by the day. Neither is it one of collapsing public support—membership of environmental organisations remains high despite the global economic downturn and the impact on jobs and wages. It is, rather, a product of environmentalists’ reactions to the enduring hegemony of neoliberalism, and the narrow margins that this ideology affords any notion of political reform.

In the first half of 2013 two significant books were published by leading UK environmentalists that provide a snapshot of this unfurling crisis. The books illustrate two post-Rio+20 tendencies: on one hand, a definite rightward drift towards neoliberal respectability and, on the other, a defeatist retreat into wilderness romanticism. The political ground that these authors and their allies are ceding is ripe for socialist intervention.

Tony Juniper: “ecosystem services” and the commodification of nature

Tony Juniper, one-time executive director of Friends of the Earth, has written a book that created much excitement within the environmental movement at the time of its publication. The main thrust of his argument is that earth’s ecosystems provide various “services” to humanity that can be described in monetary-equivalent terms. Juniper argues that such values can be included within the economic calculations and balance sheets of governments and corporations, leading them to correctly value these currently “free” services, thereby avoiding the market failure of ecological destruction. Through an evolving corporate lexicon, the markets that are emerging on the basis of such valuations are being described as “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) by NGOs and environmental economics think-tanks such as the UK government’s Ecosystems Markets Taskforce,1 and the UN’s Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB).2

To illustrate the basis for these “values” of nature, Juniper runs through general illustrations of how human activities and livelihoods relate to ecology and natural systems. He chooses case studies that explore links, for example, between soil degradation and declining food supply, between upland deforestation and coastal flooding, and mangrove destruction and fisheries decline. As a reminder, there’s nothing particularly objectionable in Juniper’s central thesis that human society is in large part dependent upon nature and that ecological health is necessary for human survival. Indeed, as the central tenet of environmentalism, it echoes Karl Marx’s own assertion: “Man lives from nature, ie nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is part of nature”.3 That said, however laudable Juniper’s efforts are to ask, “What has nature ever done for us?” his often convoluted illustrations are a far cry from the allegorical clarity provided by Marx.

Stylistically, Juniper’s book makes for a pretty unsatisfactory reading experience. His arguments are based on a very high degree of one-sided generalisation (there is not much on how human society had historically influenced nature before our environmental crisis). The political and economic arguments that flow from his work are also infused with an intense moralism (in places Juniper’s work carries an almost insufferable tone of self-certainty, making it feel like a hurried undergraduate geography essay). On the basis of style and substance, then, there’s not much to recommend. The environmental message is introduced in more useful detail in John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun,4 and John Bellamy Foster’s The Vulnerable Planet.5 Readers of International Socialism, seeking an explicitly Marxist critique of the ecological crisis and its resolution, would gain more from The Ecological Rift by Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York6 or Ecology and Socialism by Chris Williams.7 Nonetheless, there is political value in discussing Juniper’s conclusions.

The fundamental problems with Juniper’s work relate to his choice of pro-capitalist mechanisms for environmental salvation. It is this, however, that explains why the book received vigorous endorsement from the upper echelons of environmental NGOs such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and plaudits from various corporations including Nestlé. For these admirers, the value of Juniper’s work is that it advocates “pragmatic” solutions to the environmental crisis—the development of new markets in environmental conservation through partnerships between NGOs, corporations and neoliberal governments. In this respect, Juniper’s work sits alongside that of other previously radical environmentalists such as Tim Flannery8 and Mark Lynas9 who now argue that the exit from our crisis lies through the corporate world, not against it. Lynas, for example, in his book The God Species, adopts an approach that “does not necessarily imply any limit to human economic growth or productivity… Nor does it necessarily mean ditching capitalism, the profit principle, or the market, as many of today’s campaigners demand”.10

The thread that links all these works, and the emerging trend for neoliberal conservation, stems from a very crude process of abstraction. When practised well, conservation ecology is inherently dialectical because it is concerned with dynamic change, the historical interplay between humanity and nature, and the abstraction and recombination of ecological traits and concepts at various levels from the genetic to the landscape.

In contrast, those proposing to break down ecological outputs into various anthropocentric “services” threaten to oversimplify the dynamism and holism inherent within ecology. Whatever “service” neoliberal conservationists may choose to promote for the market, they cannot hide from the fact that these ecological outputs are the product of ecological unity in the round. An ecosystem can produce several “services”—but any attempt to commodify just one or two will subject the ecosystem concerned to the distorting impact of speculative capitalism. In effect, Juniper and others are arguing for the disaggregation of ecosystem functionality—the division of any given ecosystem into its “service” roles in water, food, fuel, cultural and cash provision. In direct contradiction to their acknowledgement of the need for functioning holistic ecology, these neoliberal environmentalists are on the verge of artificially breaking ecosystems down into tradable “service” units. The assumptions that this can be rationally achieved are based on existing markets in carbon trading, the trading of “wetland credits” in the United States, the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) process, and the new ideas of so-called biodiversity offsetting. All these mechanisms are portrayed as effective despite growing evidence to the contrary, and the fact that they lead to the promotion of fictitious commodities.11

As far back as 1996 David Harvey anticipated today’s particular neoliberal conversion within environmentalism and warned of the consequences of this final capitulation to the logic of capital:

Appeal to monetary valuation [of nature] condemns us, in short, to a world view in which the ecosystem is viewed as an “externality” to be internalised in human action only via some arbitrarily chosen and imposed price structure or regulatory regime.12

Harvey’s prophetic comment is vitally important because it exposes the fundamental contradiction between monetary valuation and ecology. It also helps us to identify the class-bound qualities of emergent neoliberal environmentalism. Thus the ecosystem services agenda can be interpreted as a pretty cynical process of mystification—an ideological narrowing of our dialogue over the nature of Earth’s ecology and its human interactions—that serves the interests of corporations seeking to “green” their image, and the consultants lining up to prove how money can be made from ecological catastrophe (Tony Juniper is himself an “adviser” in this field).13

The agenda is also inherently anti-democratic. In defining chosen “ecosystem services” and their qualities, environmentalists and economists will soon start selecting the particular units and functions of ecosystems that represent profitable “services”. The determination of such is taking place with little or no input from those who are actually managing important ecosystems through their livelihoods, or the rest of us who benefit from healthy ecological outputs. This hands the science of ecology over to an elite whose interests will quickly align themselves with the cementing and continuation of this industry—with its attendant technocrats, markets and dividends. As far as our understanding of ecology is concerned, the timing couldn’t be worse. Because of capitalism’s devastating ecological impact, and its inherent bias towards reductionist, corporate-sponsored science, it has simply not been possible to ascertain the true nature of ecosystem function. Juniper’s uncritical adoption of a neoliberal “ecosystem service” position will push us even further from this capacity—in stark contrast to the espoused hopes and desires of today’s conservationists and environmentalists.

As a practising conservationist, I would also add that Juniper’s approach is starting to distort our efforts on the ground. Conservation has taken a generation to reach consensus over the fact that emphasis upon the ecosystem is fundamentally correct. But even before we have a chance to consider the implications of this, or to orient our conservation efforts to reflect what we can glean from ecosystem functionality, the “ecosystem services” agenda threatens to straitjacket us into a paradigm of neoliberal economism through over-simplification and a dash for cash.

This genie will be difficult to put back in the bottle. Once ecosystems, their functions and their constituent parts become artificially disaggregated and effectively privatised, they will become subject to the normative pressures of commodity fetishism. Already this approach is redefining nature as merely “natural capital” and organisations such as Environment Bank are pushing new markets in so-called “biodiversity offsetting” as a means of enhancing profits for landowners—confirmation that commodification of ecosystem units and functions lies at the heart of the “ecosystem services” paradigm.14 Furthermore, their historical and cultural significance to humanity will disappear, rendering their functions subservient to the artificial priorities of speculative capital. This agenda, unchallenged, will compound rather than alleviate our ecological crisis, and place ecological understanding in the hands of a corporate-sponsored elite—further widening the ecological rift through dispossession and alienation. In short, it threatens to place environmentalism on the wrong side of the class struggle.15

George Monbiot: The retreat of a radical?

The rightward political drift of mainstream environmentalism has been barely acknowledged outside of pretty narrow academic circles.16 We desperately need serious environmentalists to expose the dangerous fallacies embedded within neoliberal ecology, not least because if the supporters of environmental organisations—that now number in their millions—knew of the corporate takeover of their groups they would probably despair. For many, membership of an environmental campaign or conservation group represents a desire for ecological protection from the forces of commodification. As David Harvey has noted: “We have loaded upon nature, often without knowing it, in our science as in our poetry, much of the alternative desire for value to that implied by money”.17

In this respect, one of the saddest spectacles of recent times has been the political direction of the UK’s most important independent environmental campaigner, George Monbiot. In response to the political failure of Rio+20, Monbiot, in his regular column for the Guardian, advocated a new direction:

While we may have no influence over decisions made elsewhere, there is plenty that can be done within our own borders. Rewilding—the mass restoration of ecosystems—offers the best hope we have of creating refuges for the natural world, which is why I’ve decided to spend much of the next few years promoting it here and abroad.18

Monbiot published Feral, his highly personalised manifesto for rewilding in May 2013. Through this book he outlines a particular approach that would see us hand back our most “unproductive” agricultural land to nature. To speed up the regeneration of natural ecology on such abandoned land, Monbiot advocates the reintroduction of locally-extinct “keystone species”19—the wolf, the beaver, the elephant. This is presented as nothing less than a release of humanity’s control over nature.

Feral is written passionately and, as usual with Monbiot, contains a great deal of research in support of its arguments. The book reads as an appeal for a liberated human imagination to be brought into the fray in the fight against our own alienation from nature. In that respect, its value lies in Monbiot’s visionary espousal of the “possible”—although readers will have to tolerate a great deal of subjective ranting over the presence of sheep in upland Wales to find these core themes. There’s certainly some justification for calling for widespread ecological restoration after a half century of capitalist agricultural intensification that’s hammered our soils, human health and the world’s biodiversity, but Monbiot takes an uncharacteristically apolitical approach towards the issue, leaving him open to the charge of environmental romanticism.

In a strange mirror image of Juniper’s neoliberalism, Monbiot sets up a similar highly-simplified division between nature and human society. In Monbiot’s case, this illusion hides the historical interrelationships between humans and nature through its romantic idealism. This condition is itself a product of alienation—as Timothy Morton has argued, “Romantic environmentalism is a flavour of modern consumerist ideology. It is thoroughly urban, even when it is born of the countryside”.20 This is probably the point that Steven Poole was driving at in the Guardian when he described much of the current surge in British “nature writing” as bourgeois: “The idealisation of the natural world is as old as the city, to the corrupting influence of which a return to pastoral life is always presented as a cure”.21

Poole’s article was promising in title, but disappointing in content. He singled out Monbiot’s Feral as an example of this form of bourgeois escapism—hardly surprising given how much of the book is dedicated to a personalised description of his own “ecological boredom”. Poole’s assessment of Monbiot’s position as bourgeois is essentially correct, but his treatment of this ideological position went no further than drawing a flippant analogy between today’s nature writing and middle class devotion towards north London farmers’ markets. Monbiot responded furiously to the criticism.

The link between Monbiot’s positions in Feral and bourgeois thought needs to be taken more seriously. The fundamental connection is that both fetishise “wilderness” as if nature exists as a separate category outside of human society. But nature can only appear to be something separate from humanity because all aspects of the earth’s life are, at this stage, subject to the same forces of capitalist alienation. It is worth reiterating Marx’s truism here, that István Mészáros paraphrased superbly at Marxism 2006: “Nature is the natural substratum of human life. Human beings are inseparable from nature.”

“Wilderness”, then, is not an objective category of ecological science (if such a thing were possible). It is a construct of idealist bourgeois ideology. The fathers of the wilderness movement—Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir—who did so much to inform conservation philosophy during the 19th and 20th centuries, stood gazing in rapture over American landscapes that had been wiped clean of human influence through the genocides and diseases unleashed on the indigenous people of that continent.

Notions of empty space and wilderness were derived from romantic bourgeois descriptions of a world that had already been turned upside down. By the time late 19th century capitalism had penetrated the interiors of Africa, Asia and the Americas, the long-established ecological patterns that had arisen through the interplay of local human societies and non-human nature had been completely transformed or shattered. Even before colonialism the slave trade, for example, had depopulated the coasts and riverbanks—driving survivors into densely populated, defensive, inland settlements, while simultaneously disrupting pre-capitalist trading patterns, and forcing changes in modes and means of production.22 European diseases, meanwhile, had wiped out countless thousands of indigenous Americans for hundreds of miles in advance of the so-called frontier. And this pattern was repeated wherever humans had settled over the millennia before European expansion and the capitalism that followed on its coat-tails.23

Monbiot’s argument, where it attempts to present wilderness as a legitimate ecological category, is best described as crudely materialist. The approach offers no meaningful solutions to the ecological crisis because it is not rooted in the historical reality outlined above. Monbiot also paints all humanity as a universally destructive influence on the earth’s living systems—and this is very definitely a bourgeois distraction. Like the resurgent trend for Malthusianism—personified by the fashionable, infantile ramblings of Stephen Emmott24—it is a bad case of victim blaming. Ecologically, it is almost entirely inaccurate, echoing the idealist perspective laid out by the Canadian poet Bliss Carman: “The greatest joy in nature is the absence of man.”

When Feral was published, Monbiot was interviewed on BBC Radio 3.25 He called for the reintroduction of wolves in the UK because of their recorded ecological benefits as a keystone species within the US Yellowstone National Park: “We think of wolves as killing things, but the wolves actually created opportunities for a vast range of life to live which wasn’t living there before”. Replace the word “wolves” with “humans”, and the ecological truth is revealed. We humans are earth’s keystone species and, as such, it is our societal form that conditions our interactions with non-human nature. Apart from the loss of a relatively low number of species, mainly during human prehistory, our pre-capitalist ecological impact was largely and inadvertently positive. If this sounds unconvincing it’s worth remembering that modern conservationists within Europe are overwhelmingly concerned with the maintenance of traditional agricultural practices to save the species that are being lost through capitalist agriculture, the collapse of small-scale farms, and the demise of Europe’s peasantry.26 For the last three centuries, as global society has evolved towards an increasingly rapacious capitalist social formation, our once positive relationship with nature has swung into reverse—exactly echoing the destructive forces that capital has unleashed within our own human lives and cultures.

Strategically, if unmoderated, Monbiot’s type of wilderness fetish will prove a disastrous distraction for environmentalism. His attacks on Welsh hill farmers, like those undertaken on fishermen (verbally by himself, and physically by the likes of the Sea Shepherd Foundation), will, again, place conservation arguments on the wrong side of the class struggle. As John Bellamy Foster pointed out in relation to the anti-worker positions of the environmental organisation Earth First in the battles against old-growth logging in the United States,27 these positions will only heighten the sense of alienation that workers feel from nature. It presents conservation as an elitist concern, bolstering the myth that members of environmental organisations are not working class, and handing the definition of conservation over to substitutionist activists at best, and a technical class of consultant ecologists at worst.

Attention to class is vital. In his arguments for the rewilding of British uplands, Monbiot is arguing for the removal of subsidies to hill farmers who are eking out marginal livelihoods with the direct assistance of state support. He rightly criticises absentee landlordism and land inequality. But an apolitical call for subsidy removal will only facilitate an aggressive round of bankruptcies and land-grabbing as we’ve seen across the Third World in the decades since the IMF and World Bank scrapped state subsidies to small farmers under structural adjustment programmes.

These comments highlight problems and inconsistencies with Monbiot’s Feral. In the end, however, Monbiot appears to have written the most devastating critique of his new rewilding agenda himself. In a 2002 article on his own website he attacks TV natural historians such as David Attenbourgh because of their fabrication of a wilderness ideal when, in reality:

The construction of wilderness has always been a key component of the colonial project. Almost everywhere that European settlers went, they either proclaimed the land they seized to be “terra nullius” [nobody’s land] or, by expelling its people, ensured that it became so. The land which many of the richest colonists sought was that which harboured great concentrations of game.28

Disappointingly, in Feral, these colonial disasters have been rebadged by Monbiot as the “wrong way” to rewild. Here then, in a retreat from the political radicalism that he has displayed so well elsewhere, Monbiot reins himself in before allowing himself politically to generalise to the necessary level. Rewilding under the deadweight of neoliberal capitalism is a bourgeois digression. In Monbiot’s case, it’s also contradictory because he has taken a useful stance against the creeping commodification of nature that Tony Juniper, TEEB and the PES brigade advocate.29 Somehow, the rewilding project appears to have taken his focus away from the rising tide of neoliberal conservation. In Feral, he instead spends his time criticising conservationists for replicating small pockets of traditional farming.

Despite this criticism, Monbiot’s excitement for rewilding proved infectious to many of my conservation colleagues—probably because they have likewise become “bored” with the mundanity of rescuing small patches of nature from the grips of capital. His pre-publication description of rewilding as being akin to Alice in Wonderland, peeking through the looking-glass, was exciting. But the book, and the arguments that have followed publication, have been disappointing and, in my view, almost wastefully distracting. It may come as an unpleasant surprise to him, but Monbiot would have been better starting a discussion on rewilding where Leon Trotsky left off in the 1920s:

The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests and of seashores cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few or insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming… Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

Man in socialist society will command nature in its entirety… He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down the rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he did in primeval times.30

Trotsky’s words have been frequently criticised and seldom understood—even by activists on the Green Left such as Derek Wall.31 They are given as evidence for his supposed arrogant, wholly utilitarian and Promethean approach towards nature. But what Trotsky is actually alluding to here is how we can rationally and democratically control our relationship with nature. We have no option but to control nature—that’s what housing, clothing and feeding ourselves are all about. In many respects, our control must be extended still—not least so that billions of humans can be liberated from hunger and disease. But the key thing to remember is that in the 90 years since Trotsky wrote those words we have handed our relationship with nature—the factor that shapes our control of nature—to the violent, anti-ecological, short-term whims of capitalists—and their terrible bourgeois tastes for an elitist “wilderness”.

In a socialist future we will be faced with little choice but to undertake the acts of re-registration within nature that Trotsky refers to—not least as we attempt to adapt to climate change and undertake the restoration of the earth’s capital-ravaged ecosystems. This will be our route towards healing our ecological rift—bringing us back from the capitalist brink towards meaningful ecological sustainability. Monbiot’s offer of an alternative to the current ecological crisis through rewilding is potentially important in that context. But for its fullest exploration we should appeal for him to realign his priorities and rejoin the wider struggle. At this stage, it is only through anti-capitalist discourse that we can apply genuine science and a meaningful collective imagination to discover what rewilding could really mean.

Whether Monbiot rejoins us or not, we should not kid ourselves or others that the road to environmental sustainability lies through the capitalist system—via ecological markets or rewilding. It is, rather, through successful strategies of class struggle that our reconciliation with Earth’s ecology will be achieved. In that context, it is vital for socialists to continue our expanding and ground-breaking work in the environmental arena through united fronts such as the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group, through solidarity networks such as La Via Campesina, and through a range of campaigns from One Million Climate Jobs,32 to those seeking to protect local green spaces from developments such as fracking. The efforts of neoliberal conservationists such as Tony Juniper, in contrast, are increasingly concerned with facilitating the interests of capital. They are in danger of subjugating our ecology to corporate interests and justifying the further privatisation of life on earth. Regrettably, the crisis within environmentalism suggests that we must soon add resistance to newly-converted neoliberal ecologists to our growing list of socialist environmental campaigns.


1: Go to www.defra.gov.uk/ecosystem-markets/

2: Go to www.teebweb.org/

3: Quoted in Williams, 2010, p178.

4: McNeill, 2000.

5: Foster, 1999.

6: Foster and others, 2010.

7: Williams, 2010.

8: Flannery, 2010.

9: Lynas, 2011.

10: Lynas, 2011, p9.

11: Go to Muradian and others, 2013; Environmental Conservation, 2011; www.redd-monitor.org.

12: Harvey, 1996, p154.

13: Go to www.tonyjuniper.com.

14: Go to www.naturalcapitalinitiative.org.uk and www.environmentbank.com/biodiversity-offsetting.php.

15: This pushing of the natural capital agenda by Western governments and corporations at the Rio+20 conference was a major factor in the collapse of international political dialogue over the global environmental crisis. Nonetheless, despite the Rio+20 controversy, this new lexicon was effectively launched at the first World Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh in November 2013-a profoundly undemocratic conference hosted by conservation NGOs, government and UN representatives, and a raft of multinational corporations. Thankfully, a very encouraging counter-conference was hosted by the World Development Movement and others that has the potential to start a fightback against the rising commodification-of-nature agenda-Marshall, 2013; www.wdm.org.uk/news; www.naturalcapitalforum.com; http://naturenotforsale.org/

16: See Büscher and others, 2012; Igoe and Brockington, 2007.

17: Harvey, 1996, p163.

18: Monbiot, 2012a.

19: As the name suggests, a “keystone species” is one that carries a central role within the processes of any given ecosystem. Several keystone species can operate simultaneously within an ecosystem-Africa’s savannahs are influenced as much by the driver ant as they are by the elephant. The loss of such species can radically alter ecosystems-resulting in the loss of other species and major disruption across existing food-chains. For example, when the sea otter was driven to the brink of extinction across the Pacific coast of the US by fur trading during the 18th and 19th centuries, the large seaweed kelp forests were decimated as the sea urchin population exploded without the predating influence of the sea otter. These coastal seaweed forests, in turn, acted as hatcheries and nurseries for many species of marine fish, and their loss would have cascaded ecological disruption across the eastern Pacific and beyond.

20: Morton, 2007.

21: Poole, 2013.

22: James C Scott’s recent critique of Jared Diamond’s work in the pages of the London Review of Books highlights the impact of the slave trade upon “traditional societies”. Scott attacks Diamond’s assumptions that traditional hunter gathering populations lived in original isolation-a mirror image of the bourgeois notion of pristine wilderness-Scott, 2013.

23: Even the darkest, deepest depths of the rainforest were inhabited before European colonialism-Hemming, 2009; and Pearce, 2005.

24: Emmott, 2013; See also Goodall, 2013.

25: Go to www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p019sxh0

26: Watt and others, 2007; Ausden, 2007.

27: Foster, 2002.

28: Monbiot, 2002.

29: Monbiot, 2012b and 2013.

30: Trotsky, 1991, pp279-280.

31: Wall, 2010.

32: Go to www.climate-change-jobs.org/


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