Essay

Selling the forests to save the trees

LONDON EXCEL, SITUATED in the now gentrified old docklands of the British capital, is a huge empty space designed for the meeting convenience of the global insider class. Inside the conference centre the street is kept distant as delegates, dwarfed by outsized internal walkways, gather to talk, listen, network and access their PDAs, cloistered from the great metropolis′ polyglot commotion.

In July 2010, London Excel hosted the inaugural Global Business of Biodiversity Symposium. The halls – ‘large enough to accommodate two 747 jumbo jets′ – easily swallowed the thousand or so embodied suits who attended the curious event. Among the throng were bureaucrats, academics, civil society, UN staffers and a few politicians, but most came from private enterprise. The vibe was commercial swagger meets moral self-satisfaction, a combination epitomised by the corporate social responsibility ethic of ‘doing well by doing good′.

Between sessions management consultants compared notes with scientists; venture capitalists traded cards with environmental campaigners; bureaucrats took advice from businessmen. Life on earth, it seems, is redolent with the promise of new products and markets that will also deliver ecological salvation. ‘We must,′ the audience was told by one keynote speaker, ‘put a price on ecosystem services, including cultural and spiritual services.′ According to a different presenter, ‘we should probably be thinking about biodiversity more like a real estate market: these are very distinctive and unique assets.′

‘We need,′ said the boyish and charismatic British Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Natural Environment, Richard Benyon, ‘to work together to “brand” biodiversity.′ ‘Only if we put the right price on nature,′ another speaker argued, ‘can we hope to save it.′

Among the schemes that received the most attention at the Business of Biodiversity Symposium was REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – an idea at the top of the global agenda to revalue the natural world. The REDD concept is simple enough. Forests function as colossal natural carbon sinks, but they are being destroyed at a staggering rate: a frenzy of demolition that accounts for an astonishing 17 per cent of annual global emissions. We are destroying the remaining intact forests of the world at the rate of an area the size of one soccer field every two seconds. The greatest drivers of destruction are global agribusiness commodities, including timber, palm oil, beef and leather, pulp and paper, and soya. REDD contemplates funding being made available for the developing world to decrease deforestation, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while also conserving biodiversity and preserving indigenous peoples′ rights.

Enjoying public support across the political and economic spectrum, REDD is the great hope for both forests and climate, though exactly where the money should come from is controversial. Despite the great recession, some billions have already been committed from the public coffers of certain developed nations – including a relatively modest contribution from Australia. However, it is widely believed that, in the longer term, capital will have to be derived from the private sector, through the creation of forest credits available for trade within global carbon markets.

Already, investment funds are sizing up the growth potential in REDD. London-based Canopy Capital is a private equity firm dedicated entirely to ‘the development of new ecosystem services markets′. The target market for Canopy Capital is ‘responsible investors that need to deploy capital sustainably to create wealth worth having′. Like so many of the increasing number of corporate interests associated with REDD, Canopy Capital makes effective use of stunning images of rainforests in its promotional material. The juxtaposition of hyper-finance with primordial images, wrapped up in slick public relations, is striking. ‘Welcome,′ as one advertising agency puts it, ‘to Brand Biodiversity.′

 

ACCORDING TO REDD′S often repeated ‘product narrative′, tackling deforestation is a ready remedy for climate change, the knack being to make forests worth more alive than dead. In the United Kingdom, Prince Charles (demonstrating, it must be said, a great deal more leadership on climate change than many of the world′s elected leaders) launched an ambitious project to kick-start REDD funding. The Prince′s Rainforest Project recruited a suite of celebrities who participated in a beautifully designed public campaign. The resulting film features a sequence of speakers, including Harrison Ford, the Dalai Llama, Pelé, princes William and Harry, and even Kermit the Frog, all of whom are accompanied by a computer-enhanced Argentinean horned frog as mascot, with which they interact.

The final word is given to Kermit, who concludes – with all the pathos that can be invested in an overwrought puppet – ‘we need the rainforests...everybody does.′

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a different style of branding has been applied to REDD by a business-NGO coalition under the ungainly moniker Avoided Deforestation Partners. In Washington the message is all about domestic economic interests and US unemployment figures. ‘Did you know,′ the voiceover in one Avoided Deforestation Partners video begins earnestly, that ‘saving forests can save American consumers billions′ and ‘can protect American jobs′? The tone is unnervingly close to the kind associated with advertisements for novelty kitchen appliances. ‘Tropical forests,′ the promotion concludes: ‘the affordable climate change solution.′

 

IN A MECHANISTIC, econometric and mass-consumption age it seems to be thought self-evident that the riotous complexity of nature must be transmogrified, through scientific and economic alchemy, into quantifiable units of value. REDD will entail a vast global exercise in carbon accounting, including the establishment of baselines and monitoring, reporting and verification of avoided deforestation. Satellite monitoring, accompanied by ‘ground truthing′, is expected to play a central role. In addition to requiring tremendous technical expertise, imagining that the entrenched politics, culture and economics that produce the world′s appalling rates of deforestation can all be transformed within a few years requires confidence bordering on faith, particularly given that some of the last great forests are found in some of the least-well-governed countries on earth. As The Economist recently observed, given that the Democratic Republic of Congo does not know, to the nearest million, how many people have died in its civil war, it is hard to know how its government can be expected to provide a reliable account of its forest-carbon stock.

 

GEORGE SAUNDERS′ SHORT story ‘Jon′ (2003) is a futuristic narrative of adolescents who have grown up in confinement, as a focus group under the quasi-benevolent control of a brand agency. The teenagers are only able to evoke reality through brand references: ‘Though I had many times seen LI 34321 for Honey Grahams where the stream of milk and the stream of honey enjoin to make that river of sweet-tasting goodness, I did not know that, upon making love one person may become like the milk and the other like the honey, and soon they cannot even remember who started out the milk and who the honey, they just become one fluid, this like honey/milk combo.′

The satire echoes the fundamental reconstitution of social meaning that is occurring in relation to biodiversity. Valuing every hectare – every molecule – of rainforest on earth for its carbon, leading ultimately to the creation of intricate global financial markets, necessarily contemplates a radical re-envisioning. According to Pavan Sukhdev, the study leader of the transnational Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project, who addressed the Business of Biodiversity Symposium and visited Australia in August 2010, there is no alternative to putting an economic value on biodiversity. Sukhdev told his Sydney audience: ‘if you don′t, then there′ll be other things, there′ll be other uses of land which are measured in economic value terms. And this will result in trade-off choices being made, which means that nature would be destroyed.′

The revolution in our sensibilities and ways of conceiving is stark. In our most ancient traditions, animals and plants were seen as  gods and ancestral spirits incarnate. In later eras the utility of nature was self-evident to nomadic, farming and fishing peoples, who were embedded in landscapes and humbly dependent on the bounty of the seasons. Even in modernity, secular eyes have proven capable of seeing the transcendent beauty of nature as warranting veneration and preservation, albeit that the reverence has often been more honoured in the breach. ‘To me,′ Wordsworth wrote, ‘the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.′

 

PRAGMATISTS WILL INSIST that if the valuation – even the commodification – of nature is what is required to halt deforestation and the more general despoliation of the environment, so be it. Practical efforts, the argument runs, should not be delayed because of arcane anxieties about how the wonder of creation is articulated. Perhaps worrying that the notion of ‘ecosystem services′ is ontologically and culturally desiccated, or blindingly anthropocentric, is indeed nothing more than intellectual extravagance. But when you change how you understand a thing, you modify its nature. What the philosopher John Searle called ‘brute facts′ – such as forests and their destruction – are incontrovertible, but our social construction of external phenomena is transformed with every linguistic twist and turn. Indeed, the hope of many who advocate for REDD and for the ecosystem services agenda more generally is precisely that: if we conceive of nature in econometric terms we will change how we act, fundamentally shifting political economy to a sustainable footing. It will be an inevitable consequence of the incorporation of nature within the liberal economic universe.

Writing in the middle of the twentieth century, the great Hungarian social theorist Karl Polanyi considered that the commoditisation of the natural world could only lead to disaster. According to Polanyi, because land had not been brought into being by human beings it was a ‘fictitious commodity′. Dealing with land as a commodity, he argued, was contrary to the essence of the thing, an iterative contradiction that would inevitably have deleterious social and environmental consequences. In relation to REDD, the Polanyian analysis may be prescient. If the utilitarian rationale of reducing carbon emissions from deforestation – prioritised on the basis of underlying cost logic about the relative pricing of different abatement options – becomes the paramount justification for forest conservation, what happens if you find that you can achieve the same result more cheaply in some other way? What if it turns out that there is a cheaper and nastier means of achieving the same end? Why pay more for biodiverse natural forests and the preservation of forest peoples′ rights, for example, if it is demonstrated to be more fiscally advantageous to sequester carbon with plantations that can themselves be readily harvested for pulp and paper?

Motives are fundamental. It is possible to envisage a version of REDD designed to stimulate sustainable development pathways, with the starting point being the preservation of biodiversity and the recognition of Indigenous peoples′ rights. But whether or not REDD or any other economic mechanism for preserving ecosystem services is effective in environmental terms will depend on the real objectives behind the design. As Chris Lang, editor of the trenchantly sceptical REDD-Monitor, has commented, ‘REDD could involve the biggest ever transfer of control over forests – to international carbon financiers and polluting companies.′

 

SINGING LOUDLY FROM the same hymn sheet, members of the chorus may still worship different gods. REDD is supported for diverse reasons. Environmentalists, scientists, celebrities and British royalty may well want to ‘save the rainforests′ for their intrinsic significance, as well as for more pragmatic reasons, but the private sector is in a structurally different position. Power generators and fossil fuel companies, private equity fund managers and management consultants, agribusinesses and carbon traders: all have as their ultimate goal the maximisation of profit. Inevitably, these firms see REDD as an opportunity for commercial and strategic advancement, and their imperative must be to secure the establishment of an international mechanism that offers the best opportunities for mercantile gain. Imagining that corporations – mandated by law to optimise returns for shareholders – are motivated by altruism is not to see the wood for the trees. Undoubtedly, global politics and economics needs reconfiguring if we are to deviate from our drastic unsustainability, but if life on earth is to be remade we must continually ask: on what terms, and for whose benefit?

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