By Appointment: the Myth of ‘Natural Capital’

April 12, 2014


From Indian vultures to Chinese bees, Nature provides the ‘natural services’ that keep the economy going.

So says the blurb for Tony Juniper’s book, What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees (2013). The title sounds suspiciously like a psychobabbly motivational manual, a manual, in this case, complete with a Foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales. According to this ‘feelgood’ pæan to ‘green capitalism’, nature is another branch of the service industry, in which these so-called ‘natural services’ constitute ‘an abundance of life creating a genetic codebook that underpins our food, pharmaceutical industries and much more’. It strikes me as another symptom of an intensified encroachment of commodity relations into our lives, such that the ‘natural world’ – of which humans are a part – is subsumed to the logic of capitalist production. An academic critique of this convergence of ecology and economy, from an animist perspective, allows Juniper’s book to be put in its place: as another brick in a wall of abstraction further alienating us from ourselves, each other and other-than-human natures:


The ‘natural capital myth’ is colonising our imaginations, becoming part of ‘the matrix of thought, the background that shapes our mental habitats’ (Midgley, 2004:5) so as to tell us who we are or might be as human beings in relationship with the other-than-human natures who also dwell on earth. It is offering a convergence between ecology and economy, but one that creates a docile ‘eco-functional nature’ (Igoe, 2010) that can be instrumentalised as a capital-bearing and fissionable asset within a dominant accounting and calculative praxis. It is encouraging and deepening a fetishising of economistic metrics, such that they have particular powers over the shaping of socionature futures, whilst simultaneously concealing and disavowing the relationships and drivers of problematic ecological change (cf. Büscher et al.,2012; Fletcher, in press; Latour, 2010). As such, the enhancing of ‘measurementality’ (Turnhout et al., 2013) and the management of measures (as repetitively encouraged by TEEB’s director), are pulling us towards a scenario of socionature management delineated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as the ‘Technogarden’ (see discussion in Daily et al., 2011:10-11). Through this emphasis, transition towards ‘sustainability’ is to be achieved by investment in technically sophisticated innovation and market mechanisms, to produce an increasingly distant ‘technonature’ expertly administered by ‘remote control’ (Guattari, 2000[1989]). This, then, further entrenches the division between nonhuman nature calculated as ‘pacified’ and objectified goods to which property rights can attach, and humans as calculative agents effecting the disentangling standardisations producing this alienation (cf.Çalişkan and Callon, 2010: 5-8). As such, it is likely to intensify the disembedding emphasis (of ‘society’ from ‘land’ and ‘nature’) lying at the heart of capitalist enterprise (cf. Polanyi, 2001[1944]), and also to be associated with a deepening of inequities, the displacement of different socionature knowledges and value practices, and disembodiment processes more broadly. This is why ‘the natural capital myth’ invites critically diagnostic attention, as well as juxtaposition with other world-making myths and associated practices.

Sian Sullivan, ‘The natural capital myth; or will accounting save the world? Preliminary thoughts on nature, finance and values’, p.32



OK, so it’s written in a pretty dense academese, but I get the drift… For a more readable, non-academic engagement with the wild world, antagonistic to capital, take a look at this and other posts here and here by two veterans of the King Mob group.

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