© Fenna Jensma

‘Nature conservation keeps stumbling ahead, from one failing policy to another’

Conservation organisations worldwide have been trying to save the environment for decades. But deforestation persists, species extinction continues, and CO2 concentrations keep rising. Why is it that all our efforts to protect nature fail? According to Wageningen anthropologist Robert Fletcher, it’s that we continue to believe in the fantasy that ‘the market’ will solve our problems.

World leaders struck a ‘historic’ deal last December: to save biodiversity, 30 per cent of the planet must be given protected status. This agreement was urgently needed. Not a single target set at the previous major biodiversity summit more than a decade ago has been met.

Plant and animal species are dying out so fast that some studies call it a sixth ‘mass extinction event’. The goal of halving global deforestation by 2020 was missed by a long shot. Meanwhile, CO2 emissions continue to rise even as world leaders meet year after year to try and turn the tide.

So, why do we continue down this dead-end road?

‘We are facing massive extinctions, but we react to it like an inveterate smoker trying to quit’

This is vitally important, says environmental anthropologist Robert Fletcher (50), associate professor in the sociology department at Wageningen University & Research and author of Failing forward: The rise and fall of neoliberal conservation. In this book, which was published last week, Fletcher attempts to answer that question.

‘We are facing the collapse of global ecosystems. This could lead to massive extinctions, potentially also that of the human species.’ But we react to it like an inveterate smoker trying to quit. ‘Smokers acknowledge that smoking is dangerous, and claim that they’re planning on quitting in the future. But that allows them to keep doing what they are doing in the present and not actually make the change they claim is needed now.’

Fletcher’s interest in nature stems from his love of adventure sports. He has lived in Holland for ten years but grew up in northern California, where he spent much of his time outdoors. ‘I spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains and exploring the National Parks,’ he says. ‘And that led me to sports like whitewater rafting, paddling, and rock climbing.’

It resulted in a keen interest in ecotourism, the subject of his dissertation and his first book, Romancing the Wild. His hobby took him to Costa Rica, the Central American country known as the green paradise for adventurous tourists.

He conducted ethnographic research on how tourism activities can contribute to protecting natural areas and then taught there at the UN-founded University of Peace for six years. That period produced the bulk of the fieldwork upon which Fletcher builds in his latest book.

In Costa Rica, he saw characteristic contradictions in the global environmental approach: on the one hand, a large-scale loss of natural habitat through rampant extraction of raw materials and on the other hand, privatisation of nature conservation to try and slow down this loss.

Most people know Costa Rica as a success story – the epitome of a country that developed thanks to conservation. You argue that this image is wrong.

‘It is much more complicated than that. Costa Rica is characterised as more of an eco laboratory. The country became a focal point for conservation, partially because it has such an impressive biodiversity but also because of its political and economic environment, which is conducive to making conservation happen. As a result, it’s a great place for NGOs to do their work. It’s a relatively stable society in an otherwise famously chaotic region.

There is a lot of really effective nature conservation, mostly in the form of protected areas. But elsewhere in the country there is also this kind of rampant deforestation, often under the influence of multinational corporations doing extractive activities like agriculture, cattle ranching, and logging. Costa Rica displays what I call a Janus face. There is aggressive environmental protection and aggressive environmental destruction happening hand in hand. And the state supports both.’

This contradiction is characteristic of neoliberal conservation, as you call it. What exactly do you mean by that?

‘Neoliberalism is defined in many ways, but it is fundamentally seen as a shift away from the government, the state, as being the central actor, and instead moving towards so-called non-state actors, particularly private sector firms.

Until the 1980s, conservation was very much about mobilising national states to use their power to create protected areas. Then we saw this dramatic shift towards the argument that states are incapable of providing effective enforcement. Currently, it is considered to be necessary to move away from protected areas and instead engage directly with communities, especially communities in conservation areas, and get them to support conservation by showing them that there is profit to be made. This then starts to involve more and more private sector firms.’

That is what you saw happening with ecotourism, for example?

‘Ecotourism is often promoted as a kind of panacea. But when you start making this a business activity, it gets subjected to the competitive logic of markets. In Costa Rica, so many communities started ecotourism operations that they essentially started competing against each other.’

REDD+ projects are another example of neoliberal conservation, established initially as UN programmes for forest protection in the tropics. What is the idea behind these?

‘The fundamental logic here is that if you trade in natural capital, also called ecosystem services, then you can actually realise enough profit by not cutting down a forest. You need to make the ecosystem more lucrative than cutting down the forest and converting it to agricultural land, cattle pasture, or logging.

‘Carbon offset projects are about preserving forests so we can keep emitting carbon elsewhere’

So just like the larger carbon offset market, REDD+ functions on that logic of trying to get people who are emitting in certain places to pay others to emit less in other places.

Most carbon offset projects are about preserving a piece of forest and keeping the carbon where it is. But REDD+ is different: its logic is that it will simply be deforested if we don’t invest in this project. So what we’re preserving is the carbon that would be emitted if we were to deforest the area. Hence, it’s not about preserving forests in order to increase the uptake of carbon. It’s about preserving forests so we can keep emitting carbon elsewhere.’

So it’s basically trading in future scenarios.

‘It is essentially counterfactual. You’re arguing that if we don’t do anything, we’ll lose this much carbon. If we do something, then we won’t. And of course, if you’re successful, you will never know whether or not your alternative scenario would have happened.’

This trading in scenarios leads to all sorts of incorrect estimates.

Follow the Money recently showed how South Pole, the world’s largest climate consultancy, grossly overestimated the amount of CO2 emissions prevented in a REDD+ project in Zimbabwe. On paper, the project had generated over 60 per cent more CO2 credits than what was generated in actual fact. It earned South Pole millions of euros.

Meanwhile, several scientific studies show that this is exemplary for the sector: more than 90 per cent of all CO2 offsets by REDD+ projects are alleged to be mostly worthless.

Do these issues surprise you at all?

‘No, not at all. You can’t measure every tree within the forest, and there are various methodologies for quantifying the amount of carbon that exists in these different types of trees. So there’s already much uncertainty in the basic mechanisms. And you can never know what’s going to happen in the future. You cannot anticipate a forest fire or if some type of regime change will change the ownership of the forest.’

Do carbon markets then play any significant role at all in countering the loss of natural habitats?

‘It’s dangerous to bet your money on these markets. The big danger is in thinking that you can reduce your emissions through these offset mechanisms. What we have seen over time is that you end up disguising an increase in emissions by claiming that there’s offsetting going on.

With many ifs and buts, carbon markets could play a small additional role. But only if you have a very good project that is providing a strong community benefit, if the forest wouldn’t be protected otherwise, and if it’s being used as a last resort mechanism to counter emissions that can’t be reduced in any other way. In that case, I can see it functioning positively, but research shows that this is very much a minority scenario.

All kinds of start-ups are trying to solve these reliability problems with new technologies, such as blockchain. What is your view on that?

‘Conservation goes through different waves of fads: something new is brought in, and everybody enthusiastically gets on board and tries it out. When it turns out that it is much more difficult to implement than initially thought, it’s abandoned, and a new fad is introduced.

We have seen the movement from ecotourism to payment for environmental services, and from the REDD+ mechanism to biodiversity offsetting. And of course, blockchain is the latest thing that everybody is excited about.

But the fundamental question with blockchain mechanisms is: where is the funding coming from? There are very few concrete ideas besides non-fungible tokens (NFTs), where conservation activities essentially create artwork that can be sold at a high profit.

First off: that is not really a market, is it? It’s more of a philanthropic activity, described as a market because essentially, you’re asking very wealthy people to pay a lot for these tokens. So essentially, it is a charitable contribution for which they get something in return. And second, it’s hard to believe that there will be enough activity through NFTs to provide the kind of funding that’s being promised.’

Many organisations in the carbon market say there is simply no alternative to market solutions. After all, conservation requires raising money. What is your response to this?

‘It’s true that most states do not have the resources right now to effectively invest in conservation. But private financing isn’t working either. There is not a lot of funding being generated for conservation through these mechanisms. And this is partly because conservation doesn’t usually generate significant returns.

I argue that this is even impossible because substantial profits come from extracting resources. Therefore, if you’re not extracting, then it’s hard to imagine where this level of return is likely to come from. Claiming that the markets will create these funds is a promissory argument that doesn’t really have much basis.

Rather than pursuing an impossible fantasy of creating substantial asset markets around conservation financing, we should be doing what we know could potentially work: chasing down the money that does exist and using state capacity to channel it into the places where it needs to go. Most wealth is currently being hidden in offshore havens due to 30 years of liberalisation and tax reductions. If we could somehow access and repatriate that money, then all of our concerns about conservation financing and financing for everything else would disappear instantly.’

This aspect of fantasy also plays a role in your criticism of economic growth in a general sense. You analyse popular concepts such as ‘sustainable growth’ and ‘green growth’ and conclude that they are fundamentally impossible.

‘This fundamental question has been at the heart of environmentalism for more than half a century. Can economic growth be sustainable? And the answer from neoliberal conservationists is yes, we can still have growth and make it sustainable through using conservation, non-extraction, as a basis for growth itself.

‘The few examples of economic growth with a reduced environmental impact boil down to creating debt’

It relies on the idea that you can indeed profit through activities that don’t require natural resource extraction and degradation. That then ends up being translated into what is called decoupling: decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation. But there is no evidence that this actually works.

The few examples of economic growth with a reduced environmental impact boil down to creating debt. You’re creating the appearance of growth through the expansion of debt through borrowing, inflating the amount of economic value that exists in the world. And so it looks like you have a rising GDP: higher than rates of environmental degradation, so it appears like decoupling. But at some point, those increased levels of debt will be called in.’

Innovative in your book is an analysis of why we keep ‘failing forward’: we keep relying on market solutions to combat the loss of natural habitat, even though they don’t seem to work. How do you explain the appeal of these ideas?

‘The cynical view is that corporations are just trying to greenwash their activities. They obviously know that these things aren’t likely to work, right? But when you travel around in these conservation circles, you see people who are genuinely concerned for the environment and who seem genuine in promoting these approaches that they claim will work.

Often, they rely on the fact that they are successful business people, successful policymakers, people with a track record. And now, they want to use their expertise for the environment. Some people have left other much more lucrative activities to try to engage in conservation activities. So for me, it’s hard to be cynical about these people’s motives.

And then the question arises: how can so many clever and successful people buy into these mechanisms that, as far as I can tell, don’t actually have a strong case behind them?’

Your response is psycho-analytical.

‘The psycho-analytical dynamic of disavowal really helped me to make sense of things. People can recognise the problems with what they are doing or promoting, such as market solutions, but they can simultaneously be committed to them on a deeper level.’

In his book, Fletcher partly attributes this to the momentary emotional satisfaction conservationists experience at the idea of working on ‘something good’. In addition, this work, which sometimes involves international summits with important politicians and celebrities, creates a sense of drama and importance. The failure of nature policy then becomes easily supplanted by the fantasy of future success.

‘We are basically facing a collapse of global ecosystems. On the one hand, we all acknowledge this. Everybody’s talking about this. But on the other hand, we don’t act as if that is actually the case. We don’t take actions that are consistent with this knowledge, and that is because we can explain it away.

Neoliberal conservation is one of these fantasies that allow us to think that we’re doing enough in the present to keep these apocalyptic scenarios from manifesting. That’s how it functions as a fantasy. Because in reality, it’s not getting us anywhere close to where we need to be. But in the short term, we can console ourselves that we’re doing what needs to be done.’

You call this a public secret, echoing Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

‘The yearly UN climate summits, the UNFCCC meetings, are a prime example. They started in 1995. Every year, for almost thirty years, we come to these meetings, saying that the world is in danger of becoming uninhabitable and we urgently need an agreement. And every meeting results in a promise to make this happen at the next meeting. The next meeting concludes with the same promise. But the actual agreement and the actual actions that need to be taken are continuously pushed into the future.

And of course, one can argue that having those meetings is better than not having them. But after 25 years, you’d think people would take stock and say: Is anything actually happening as a result of this?

Even in a service economy constant economic growth leads to more environmental damage

The failure of the UN climate summits to actually realise their goals seems to be kind of a public secret about the meetings themselves. It is mentioned occasionally, it is discussed occasionally, but it is not really part of the meeting itself.

What I keep coming back to in the book, the public secret at the heart of this all, is the nature of the capitalist economic system. It’s a system that by its nature, demands continual extraction and continual expansion of extraction of natural resources. So it is fundamentally opposed to sustainability.’

In doing so, Fletcher aligns himself with the Neo-Marxist school in an economic sense. Even in a service economy that does not rely primarily on resource extraction, constant economic growth leads to more environmental damage, because profits ultimately translate into more consumption. At some level, we all know this, Fletcher argues. But we are still unable to talk about it publicly.

Are we breaching the public secret by discussing it now? Or does this aid its preservation?

‘That’s the tricky thing: an aspect of the dynamic of public secrecy is the attempts to reveal it. The secret ends up becoming a part of the secret itself.

So that’s the danger of the discussion that we are having here. That’s the danger of the book itself. Will it continue to reinforce the public secret? But I hope that if you continue to say something over and over again, despite people not wanting to hear it, despite it upsetting people, that eventually that era of secrecy will start to dissipate and then something can actually become discussible.’

Towards the end of your book, you conclude that degrowth is the only way out of this dead end.

‘There are many misconceptions about degrowth. Many people think degrowth is just downsizing, but that is not the main point.

The point is that overinflated economies need to reduce economic activity. But this isn’t true for the whole world. Other economies need to grow to be able to deliver for all of their citizens. And they should have the space to do so, but within planetary boundaries. So for that to happen, large economies need to contract. Degrowth is basically large economies shrinking and smaller economies growing to the point that the global economy as a whole gets to a sustainable steady state.

That is why redistribution is an essential aspect of degrowth. It’s not just about downsizing large economies. It’s also about spreading wealth much more equitably throughout societies: wealth transfers from rich societies to poor ones. One of the concerns people have about degrowth is that shrinking the economy will just create more poverty. But that is where strong mechanisms of redistribution have to come in.’

Isn’t degrowth also an unattainable fantasy, like green growth? Won’t we simply continue ‘failing forward’ in the pursuit of degrowth?

‘I see degrowth and decoupling as being opposites. The reason that decoupling is being promoted is because it’s politically palatable. It fits within the status quo. But my analysis shows that it is unachievable; it’s impossible. That’s what makes it a fantasy.

I see degrowth as exactly the opposite. In a biophysical sense, it is right. In a social sense and an economic sense, it would be possible. But right now, it’s politically unattainable. So it’s just our political imagination, our political structures, that keep it from being possible, but it’s not the nature of the world that makes it impossible. I think the opposite is true for decoupling.’

What would degrowth look like?

‘In concrete terms, you can think of progressive taxation of income, higher capital gains tax, and limiting the offshoring of capital.

And carbon tax – not carbon trading, mind you – can play a role in targeting the specific activities that lack internalisation of their environmental impact. The proceeds of this can then be used to distribute wealth more fairly, for example, by means of a basic income. This can also work for nature conservation: direct cash payments to communities living in and around conservation areas.’

Do you expect this to be implementable?

‘I like to stress that national governments have faked their own death, pretending that they don’t have the means to regulate anymore. But during the pandemic, they were suddenly able to regulate everything. It’s simply not true when states claim that they are not able to regulate the industry or mobilise resources.

We need to start by recognising that the neoliberal strategy has been self-defeating and a bad approach for most people.

At the centre of this is abandoning an economic model grounded in fossil fuels. The vast majority of economic revenue in the global economy derives from them. So abandoning fossil fuels is inevitably a part of degrowth as well.’

Failing Forward: The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Conservation is published by the University of California Press.

Translation: Delia Burggraaf