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

ChrisI 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).

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Given my interest in the work of this academic community, it was witha 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 CavanaghDavid 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. This website is an excellent example of how to do so. 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.

Chris Sandbrook is lecturer in Conservation Leadership at UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and an affiliated lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. 

The original post can be found here in the blog Thinking Like a Human


Brett Matulis
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

Bram Buscher
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,


Simon Eckermann

At the session on alternatives to neoliberalism a jointly practical and political economy game changing pathway that was proposed towards the end of discussion was the bottom up use of citizens juries within a communitarian framework to elicit and represent community values. This provides a basis for legitimisation of those values in moving from the current neoliberal hegemony with capture of political economy by multinational – as spelt out in detail in Mooney (2011 – The Health of Nations: towards a new political economy).  I engaged in several discussions of this with Eddie Yuen (ccd) and at various public forums throughout the conference and the week after at the book launch in Toronto for Catasrophism.

This communitarian approach with citizen juries is spelt out by Mooney (2011) in detail as a practical and action based political economy game changer, with chapters illustrating concrete examples internationally of where this and similar approaches have been successfully applied in health care (Indian state of Kerela, Cuba, Venezeula as well as directly by Mooney in South Africa and the Australian states of Western Australia and Tasmania).  The approach is shown to successfully move underlying health system values, government policies and health system arrangements and practices from those of a political economy captured by multinational drug companies values and peak medical associations to a political economy informed by communitarian values.

Importantly and of direct relevance to the session, Mooney (2011) also strongly points to analogous practical application in moving from the neoliberal political economy with multinationals having captured the environmental movement (Rio +20 etc), where his wife Del Watson directly addressed the issue in her PhD thesis on changing the political economy of global warming using communitarianism – her PhD accepted last year at Curtin University and which I believe is to be published as a book later this year.

Tragically, both Del Watson and Gavin Mooney were murdered in December 2012 in Tasmania.  In January I attended an incredibly moving memorial in Tasmania where over almost 5 hours more than 50 people spoke (and played music and sang) about Gavin and Dels contributions to their various local and international communities (much about the the grass roots setting up and involvement of Gavin and Del in various movements – environmental, political and social determinants of health and political left movements) and the pressing need for their research and ground breaking academic work to continue.  Tributes with a similar theme have flowed in social media (Crickey in Australia), academic Journals (Health Economics with Alastair McGuire and Alastair Gray) and newspaper memorials (Alan Sheill in the Age)  and with memorial memorial sessions in Sydney and Scottland in March and most recently with a special session for Gavin Mooney at the International Health Economic Association Conference in Sydney (July 7-10 with Steven Jan, Viginia Wiseman, Di McIntyre and Glen Salkeld).

Del and Gavin would have felt very at home at the Grabbing the Green conference and no doubt could have made a significant contribution to the session.  I hope that by pointing to their research provides some light towards a promising pathway – offering a practical bottom up approach to shifting and addressing clear problems of the neoliberal political economy in environmental and health care settings.






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