Natural economies

A recent book called The New Economy of Nature attempts to offer ways in which current economic preogatives can be made to accomodate environmentally friendly policies. In other words, to make conservation and what not profitable, to find a way to make a free market favor greener entrepreneurship. This may be a laudably “realistic” approach to eco-economics, acknowledging that no one, no matter how enlightened their self-interest, is going to enact environmental initiatives t lsoe money. Of course, the government is supposed to exist to subsidize environmental protection and regulation; the state’s primary function is to force through policy that is good for all, but not profitable for any one in particular. Only in a country where the state had so betrayed its purpose and had become a ramplant plutocracy, should businesses need to be bribed or enticed to assume the responsibility to protect the environment.

This book’s effort shows how hegemonic is the notion that seeking profit is natural, a natural as the environment itself, and that human beings can’t be expected to be motivated by anything else. But that’s obviously not true, which makes this book part of the problem, by its perhaps inadvertant reinforcement and naturalization of that idea. Neo-classical ecomonics likes to present itself as simple common-sense truth, and every effort must be made to remind ourselves that the greedy, self-serving subject (and the magical marketplace he enjoys) imagined by neoclassical economics is produced by this theory; it is not a natural fact.

Because it may seem like profit and environmental concern can comfortably coincide, but they probably can’t. Environmental abuse matters because it is, at its root, human abuse of other humans, the same thing that is at the root of exploitation for profit. When nature is exploited for profit, it’s one group expropriating what rightly belongs to all, in order to make a profit from it at some other group’s expense. This is most obvious in the extractive practices of imperialism, stripping colonies of resources for the benefit of the homeland and to the detriment of the natives. Even if this is done in an ecologically sound way, it still sucks, it undermines the purpose of bothering to protect the environment in the first place. If the people who inhabit it are worth nothing, than the land itself is nothing; it may as well be raped. One has to end the exploitation of humans by other humans to stop the exploitation of nature. The latter is just an iteration of the former.

As Zoe Young points out in her TLS review of the book, the real issue underlying environmental economics is “unequal access to resources.” The profit motive depends on this, and contemporary politics revolve around it, with US policy geared toward assuring America’s unfair lion’s share. It will never be a market function for developed nations to permit themselves to be exploited by the groups they are in the habit of exploiting. It will require something outside of economics to bring about a more ecologically healthy world, something more like charity. Could there be a natural basis for that in humans?

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