Rio+20 and the rush to sell nature's invisible labor

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Commodifying the natural services involved in the world’s carbon cycle (climate change) is just the first stage of commodifying and privatizing nature as a whole to create a new world green economy.

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Commodifying the “natural services” involved in the world’s carbon cycle (climate change) is just the first stage of commodifying and privatizing nature as a whole to create a new world “green economy.”

by Daniel Kim
Labor/Community Strategy Center, February 26, 2011

One of the theoretical gems of my recent trip to Dakar WSF with the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance came from hearing Bolivia’s UN Ambassador Pablo Solon talk about “environmental services,” like the “service” performed by a forest when it removes carbon from the air!

He talked about how capitalism is entering its third dimension. Capitalism began with the commodification of objects (mercantile goods for trade), then commodified human beings (labor power), and is now in the third dimension of commodifying of nature.

Nature’s labor power — flows of “natural services”

The key is that we’re not talking about nature in the older sense of natural “goods” — the buying and selling of forests, minerals, oil or water as scarce goods or as natural resources to be transformed by human labor to create “value.” Instead of looking at a forest only as a source of wood to make furniture and sell, here we’re talking about the complex “work” that a forest does itself to remove a certain amount carbon from the air every hour. Or the delicate “work” that a rainforest ecosystem does each day to preserve an important biodiversity repository. Or the “work” a wetlands does around the clock to prevent costly natural disasters (buffering floods).

These “services” flowing from nature’s everyday labors are a “green” capitalist’s dream. Never before priced or traded on the market, nature’s invisible labors are a vast untapped realm of value and profit, desperately needed to prop up the world economy in crisis. For instance, right now through programs like REDD every forest on the planet is being measured and inventoried. “It will take them 8 years,” noted Solon. “But when they are done, they will be ready to open that global market.” It will be worth billions and that’s just the forests.

The deeper agenda of green capitalism begins with climate but goes much further

It’s key to grasp this concept because it’s at the heart of understanding how current climate negotiations fit into the deeper agenda of Rio +20.  Commodifying the “natural services” involved in the world’s carbon cycle (climate change) is just the first stage of commodifying and privatizing nature as a whole to create a new world “green economy.”

As Tom Goldtooth of Indigenous Environmental Network pointed our in one our GGJ-Climate Justice Team conversations, “We’ve gotten pretty good at understanding the UNFCCC and how to strategize for climate but we need to get better at the deeper economic analysis of the whole thing.  Climate is just one track in the Rio process.  They want to do the same thing for all the tracks: water, biodiversity, etc.”

Another implication is that the purpose of “false solutions” (like REDD) is not just to provide ways for corporations or states to sneak out of real emissions reductions.  They are also explicit tactics for commodifying “natural services” to develop new markets and economic mechanism to establish and secure the new world “green economy.”

Solon conjectured that this new “green market” would generate a “green economic bubble” that would provoke capitalism’s next crisis.

How much is really at stake?  Here are some categories of ecosystem services and value numbers from 1987:

For the entire biosphere, the value [of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital] (most of which is outside the market) is estimated to be in the range of $16 – 54 trillion/yr., with an average of $33 trillion/yr. Global GNP is around $18 trillion/yr.

Here’s a sample of the kind of discourse environmental economists use re “payments for ecosystem services

According to Pagiola and Platais (2002), the environmental services derived from forest ecosystems, typically include (but are not limited to): hydrological benefits, reduced sedimentation, disaster prevention, biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration. De Groot et al. (2002) recognize four groups of functions: (1) regulating functions that maintain essential ecological processes and life support systems, (2) habitat functions that provide a suitable living space for wild plant and animal species, (3) production functions that provide goods such as timber and non-timber products, and (4) information functions that provide opportunities for cognitive development.

So…the question, as always: what are we going to do about it?


  • There’ll be good and bad. We will price and so value in a material way what nature does for us. Then we will figure out how to exploit that knowledge, which will unavoidably draw down on that natural world’s ‘capital’, bringing us down the sooner. But some will get a little richer before then.

  • that is – it will not change the fact that elsewhere in the world, there will be a population of people suffering the effects of environmental disaster, whether localized to the area of a chemical plant allowed to continue spewing toxins into a water supply unchecked, or the island nation on the other side of the world that will have their entire way of life not to mention entire nation’s landmass threatened by rising waters due to climate change as a result of same chemical plants…

  • The idea of becoming “better stewards of nature” via commodification seems false and beyond the point of this article. This is not about preserving nature but finding a way to profit from its destruction by naming some arbitrary value to a non priceable thing – the breathing of the forests itself. No matter what the rate or random wages these people decide a forest should “earn” – it will not be nearly enough to mitigate environmental disaster happening elsewhere in the world.

  • If commodification of nature means that we become better stewards of nature then it is a good thing. This is the free market position, I would guess. Our present relationship with nature is, as we all know, very destructive. If commodification does not intrinsically mean better stewardship then another mechanism for improving our stewardship of nature must be developed.