OAC Online Seminar from 14-31 March Sian Sullivan Banking Nature?

For some time now it has seemed that an ecological or green approach to the world we live in offers the likeliest systematic alternative to the free market ideology that has driven globalization for the last three decades. Sian Sullivan offers, in her paper Banking nature? The financialization of environmental conservation, a sharp corrective to the assumption that ecology and market are inevitably antithetical, as well as to the notion that the crisis of 2008 has substantially impeded the progress of finance, world conquest by the bean-counters and fortune hunters. For she describes here an astonishing marriage of business and nature, the drive to make the logic and practice of money-making the principal means of coordinating environmental conservation.

Anthropology at its best has always shocked complacent audiences with hitherto unsuspected aspects of human behaviour. But our stock-in-trade used to be exploring the remoter niches of the planet, while ignoring the forces of contemporary world history. I defy any reader of Sian's paper not to rub their eyes with shock and dismay at what they find there. Yet she is describing the very frontiers of capital accumulation in our world. Although it is long and full of footnotes for the intrepid (plus nice pics!), the story she tells is a riveting read. In addition to offering a forward-looking model of anthropological inquiry at the global level, she links her revelations to Marxist and Foucauldian theory, making the financialization of nature another phase of primitive accumualtion and a new kind of neoliberal environmentality. How to stop the monetary machine and what to put in its place? Sian hints at an alternative in her conclusions. But first she wants to make sure that we understand the beast itself.

Sian is an anthropologist interested in shamanism, cultural landscapes, human-nonhuman relationships, and the politics of biodiversity conservation. She received her PhD from University College London in 1998 and currently teaches courses on Cultural Landscapes and Environment and Development at Birkbeck College (Dept. of Geography, Environment and Development Studies). She has conducted field research with Damara / ≠Nū Khoen people in northwest Namibia, and in social contexts associated with the global justice movement. Much of her published work can be found online at http://siansullivan.wordpress.com.

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Well, the distinction I try to make for systems scientists, but often fail to convey, is the difference between information models and physical systems.   You'd think that would be easy, as information models are invented in and for our minds, made uniquely "efficient" to not need any energy or physical processes of any kind except logic and emotions along with support of the mind or computer in which the model operates.  Natural physical systems are rather different.  They emerge from their own environments, by highly complex energy using processes that need to develop and interact on their own, and are found to be more and more complexly organized the more you study them.    

Sian used the term "the culture/nature divide" seeming to pick up on that distinction, in saying:

I do think that a first step here is to unlearn the culture/nature divide that also seems reproduced in the dichotomy of which you speak: between environmental energy and business accounting practices.

I thought that indicated the subject was familiar to anthropology.   Some of my productive questions about it started from conversations on phenomenology.  Though I find formal the philosophical reasoning of Kant and others on the subject fascinating, I'm really not able to follow it closely.   On the other hand, my editor for two recent papers in Cosmos and History, Arran Gare, seems to have a real vision of how modern philosophy went awry, well presented in his paper "Philosophical Anthropology, Ethics and Political Philosophy in an ....  

For me it's easier to discuss it as a question of whether you use information “to substitute for” or “direct your attention to” natural features of the world that are the subject of the information.  Obviously if information becomes its own subject it becomes unfounded.   Common language seems to do both at once all the time, with the word "apple" directing your attention to apples, as well as to the separate world of our meanings for apples.   If our separate worlds of meanings have reliable material subjects to refer to, it seems they’re less likely to get confused.

Kieth, I liked where you ended up everyone wanting to be addressed in their own language:

"The moral of this story, since no-one would think it worth learning the anthropologists' language, is that we had better learn [theirs]." [para]

The catch is that scientific languages tend to invent their own definitions and not refer to things defined by nature. So learning their language doesn’t enable you to speak to them of the subjects they seem to have defined out of existence.   Much of common language, though, is composed of references to nature’s complex relationships.   So to “unlearn the culture/nature divide” could possibly mean learning how to use common language to refer to the subjects of the sciences in their natural forms, like how economists can refer to businesses as ecosystems.   Scientists might then learn to "peer over the ramparts of their silos", to consider the natural subjects of their disciplines using common language.  

That is only possible if people working within the silos of science have not intentionally defined those subjects out of existence…  and have just lost track of how to refer to them.   In any case, many professional languages simply include no references to nature as having any organization independent of their own definitions...    So that seems like a behavior that some cultures may exhibit more than others, and people in conversation sometimes move into and out of without noticing the difference.


The upshot of my formative anecdote is that I have subsequently learned quite a lot about economics and more recently finance. I even write articles and books with economists, but not of the hegemonic variety. I guess I am still an anthropologist or a historian because I prefer to argue through cases. I have learned that what look like impenetrably homogeneous edifices from the outside are usually quite fractured and plural on the inside. I have entered the world of money as a trader in my own right, as a gambler, consultant and journalist. I don't believe that any headway is likely if we remain locked inside our academic disciplines. Interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration are vital. So are reading and fieldwork.

Gillian Tett or, coming from the other side, Perry Mehrling, make a distinction between economists and bankers. The first, epitomised by Paul Samuelson's Economics textbook, are just latterday priests repeating their mantra in Latin, "You can't beat the free market". The second are realists whose private business of making money finds a measure of public cover from this mantra, but is not conducted in terms of it. Some journalists like Tett find out about how money works, but by hanging out with bankers, not economists. The doyen of economic journalists, Walter Bagehot, founder of The Economist, wrote what is still one of the best guides to money, Lombard Street: A description of the money market (1873). There really is no point in trying to master microeconomic theory, but there are sources for the truth, such as persistent and clever journalists and economists who have partially defected. Recently there have even been some ethnographers of finance, but most of them have been content just to report the native's point of view.

Our discussion of how financiers believe they can make a highly profitable market out of nature is at base about derivatives and behind that the idea of arbitrage. Markets too consist of non-communicating compartments and money is to be made from breaking down the barriers between them. Thus insurance for American baseball teams against injuries to their stars and for Caribbean hotels against bad weather may be essentially separate markets. Young maths whizzes (quants), often trained in theoretical physics, are employed to find ways of connecting them. Since the realities involved are wholly unlike, this means devising algorithms that link proxies for these phenomena, always indirectly and partially, but sometimes they discover a piece of an underlying relationship that is real. Nobody cares if it is real or not, as long as the money rolls in.

Very few people understand how the consequent financial instruments are actually derived. But their test is whether they allow their producers to exploit the market inefficiencies created by the existing separation (arbitrage). If it works, they don't share the information with anyone, make a lot of money and the quant gets promotion, a big bonus or both. But others are watching these markets like hawks and before long they pile in to take advantage of the price discrepancy until the gap disappears and one market has been made where two existed before. Then the bank sells the derivative to the general public. This is a hypothetical example.

Abritrage and derivatives are especially important when markets and money escape from the political regulation previously imposed on them, as they have under conditions of neoliberal globalization for the last three decades or more. There are some obvious benefits to society from dismantling barriers between compartmentalized markets, but, in the absence of effective regulation or oversight, greed defeats prudence and a financial collapse becomes inevitable. The last time three decades of financialization ended, the first world war broke out. The history of capitalism is full of these speculative booms and busts, from the tulips craze and the South Sea bubble, through the gold rushes, rubber boom and continental railroads in the 19th century to the present day. But in the long run some social benefits accrued from these excesses: professional stock markets, a mildly inflationary gold standard, industrial uses of rubber and improved long-distance transport. In our case humanity is caught between national societies that have lost their ability to control markets and a world society that has no effective forms of government. Money and markets extend the limits of local society, as kula expeditions do, but that makes them both dangerous. It is nevertheless in the human interest for society to become more inclusive rather than divided into warring segments.

John introduced the distinction between concepts and measurement. What was obvious to some insiders at the time and is now clear to anyone who cares to use Google, is that very few individuals understood credit derivatives at the conceptual level and those who did acquired substantial immunity from their bosses if the financial instruments they created made a lot of money for their firm, which some of them did. But their cumulative effects couldn't be measured either and what could be measured encouraged myopia.

When Alan Greenspan told the banks in 2006 that they had to submit a full report on their derivatives to the Federal Reserve, the banks said it would take them a year to do so and the reports would be out of date before they were completed. In the meantime, the pension funds of French unions were stocking up on US subprime mortgage derivatives. They did so because the rating agencies gave these instruments a AAA rating, meaning you can't possibly lose on this one (like US Treasury bonds). The employees of French-American multi-nationals who made these investments in Asset Backed Securities (ABS) on behalf of the unions operated within very strict bureaucratic guidelines, being allowed to deviate only minimally from formulae set by their bosses and tied to the ratings.

My friend, the Argentinian anthropologist, Horacio Ortiz, did fieldwork in several of these firms. Unfortunately, his magnificent thesis, L'anthropologie politique de la finance, is in French and 800 pages long, but some of his work is coming out in English, while he has since inserted himself into Chinese finance in Shanghai as the next stage of his project to understand how global money works. But I asked him at a seminar in 2004, We know that there has never been a real estate boom in history where prices didn't eventually revert to the long-run trend, so how can these investment firms bet their clients' money on dodgy loans to Americans who can't afford the mortgages that are driving up housing prices? His answer was that employees would lose their jobs if they didn't take advantage of current markets following the rules laid down by their bosses. We know about rogue traders like Nick Leeson, but most money markets are driven by herd-like behaviour of this kind. The bosses who took Bear Stearns and AIG to bankruptcy did so because they would lose their jobs if they didn't produce returns at least as good as their competitors' and the riskiest investments paid the highest returns. And the rating agencies competed with each other for business by over-rating the security of dodgy loans.

Apart from Tett's well-recognized work on credit derivatives, another anthropologist, Alexandra Ouroussoff, has produced a brilliant short book, Wall Street at War: The secret struggle for the global economy, which highlights the role of the rating agencies in fuelling the financial crisis. The same agencies are now driving the sovereign debt crisis. I am convinced that Sian has opened up what is likely to be the next phase of this process of unifying money markets. I also believe that the issues raised by Phil and Geoff are highly relevant to explanation and demystification of the financialization of nature. Anthropologists who want to understand these historical processes and even inform resistance to them have to get outside their own comfort zones, as Sian certainly has.



Hi Sian


I would be interested in joining whatever network you have of people working on Conservation Displacement. My work is on the Implementation of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, and whilst there is not yet a direct Carbon Trading Element here, it is on the horizon in 3 ways 1) Charismatic Mega-Fauna funding drives a lot f Tiger Conservation 2) Tiger Conservation has been a symbol of the politics of governmental control of Forests that fights against the democritisation of Forest Governance in the forms that Forest Rights Take 3) The same measures (e.g. JFM style participation) used to manage down claims for Forest Rights are being lined up for legitimating commercial afforestation.

I think the question of political closure in the Rich countries that you raise is incredibly disturbing. If you think of the macro-politics of the environment, what are the chances of the rich voting to limit their consumption. From this brutally simple observation the form of British politics now lines up with the struggles in developing countries to see an environmentalism of the poor become politically viable, and collective survival clearly become predicated upon this. So I agree, what we are seeing is indeed very scary, and implies a lot of politically radical work ahead.


The fact that current "commons" approaches are very compatible with "Joint Forest Management" type of participation approaches indicates that academia is very much part and parcel of the financialisation drive. One can look at the discussions by Ben Fine et al of the Post Washington Consensus, then discussions by Harris of "Social Capital" then look at the informationalist assumptions of the Commons approaches, and see very clearly an informationalist model of environmental governance emerging that runs hand in hand with financialisation, via the "virtualism in conservation" debates that you allude to.


I am very happy to see that there is an academic movement of people addressing this issue, there is also the trend of people studying biofuels and land-grab, which is very closely related.

There is of course Dan Brockington's work that shows how important the Marketing angle of this financialisation of the environment is. It would be interesting to see how Carbon Trading, Forest Conservation and Charismatic Mega Fauna Conservation are converging, with this political / funder marketing angle in mind.

Hi Keith


Regarding your comments on Macro-Economics. There is an interesting parallel between markets and ecology here. Sian and I share a common mentor, a very eccentric but brilliant (if politically difficult) BioGeographer Phillip Stott.


There are some major problems in ecology that have resulted from falsely positing equilibriums, like misrecognising the ecological status of 25% of the earth's land surface. Savannas, as areas driven by disturbance were seen as the edges of grasslands and forests, despite their huge extent and historical persistence, because the dominant model was of climax (i.e. primarily static) ecologies.


There is a parallel in economic thought. The notion of the commons and rent seeking from the commons was excluded from economic analysis by taking price equilibriums as the center piece in the neo-clasical turn. This excluded other ways of measuring value, including the notion of extraction and rent-seeking from the commons. This turn is detailed here: http://monthlyreview.org/091101foster-clark.php


Interestingly Marx's Labour theory of value rests on equilbirum thinking (the social cost of labour etc... is based on economic feedbacks leading to price equilibria). However the form of the theory does not require those equilibria to be complete, they can be feedbacks and tendencies rather than a general equilibrium. In other words the dis-equilibrium aspects of Marxian political economy are far more compatible with thinking on the commons, precisely because transcendental equilibria through and obsession with price was actually originally constructed to exclude the question of rent-seeking from the commons. There is more on possible disequilibrum interpretations of the Labour Theory of Value here: Freeman, A., 1999, The limits of Ricardian value: law, contingency and motion in economics. Freeman, A., 1999, The limits of Ricardian value: law, contingency and motion in economics, http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/2574/


This links to financialisation of nature discussions, since Carbon Trading and so on demonstrate some very peculiar features. 1) The basis of the "solution" is price setting, via those illusory equilibria. 2) There is no consideration of the dynamics and multiplier effects involved, and knock ons to food markets etc... 3) The role of labour and people's relationships and livlihoods with forests is systematically excluded 4) The notion of their being an overall commons, with an associated universe of rights for all humans to that commons is systematically excluded. And you can see traces of all of this in those early classical debates on value.

Phil, anthropology is no longer the property of the leading imperialist nations. In fact, I would say it is in decline in the US, Britain and France. But there are new anthropologies springing up all over the world in places like Brazil, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, East Asia. The OAC has been going for less than two years and we already have getting on for 5,000 members. Our aim is not to reproduce the guild system of the 20th century universities, but to provide a forum for new voices from everywhere to contribute to a conversation about what anthropology might become in the 21st century world.

I find particular inspiration from a new discussion on what is for the OAC an old theme in the Group 'Theory in Anthropology'. It's title is 'What's the use of Anthropology?' and it was posted by Elizabeth Pilar Challinor from Portugal. I would particularly draw your attention to this contribution to that thread by Daria Kucek from Budapest. I notice that she mentions nature more than once and has this particularly striking sentence:

"I see anthropology as a discipline in the service of both humanity and nature; as a device which can free humanity from an imposed body of knowledge, different systems, theories, which activate various destructive aspects of human behaviour."

I have asked her to come to our discussion and develop this idea.

I think the elemental difference we’re searching for fairly evident in the difference between what money means to people, as a social construct, and what it means to nature.   From a cultural view if nature simply won't take our money then it might seem our money means nothing to her at all.    But if you start thinking of it in her language of physical processes, you’d eventually come across how money is our instrument for passing instructions to other people, for how to alter the natural world in our service, like "make me a hamburger" or "make me a house" or "make me ever growing real profits".    

We use money to request physical services.   There's an major information gap, there, resulting from our not being handed itemized receipts, listing the many habitat changes and resource uses and their effects all over the world that get done to serve our requests.   In looking for ways to fill in that information gap, and the culture/nature divide it allows, something like the SEA principle is needed.    It's not that the culture/nature relation couldn't come into balance.   It's that because of that natural blind spot in our information we're naturally looking at only one side of the ledger, and so our only choice seems to be to "draw a blank".   That’s not the only available choice, though.

Instead of "drawing a blank" when asking what might be on nature's receipt, understanding that systems work as a whole can give you an "ah ha moment" of satisfying insight instead.   A dollar is a way to command the world economy to work as a whole to give you a share of what it can produce, and that comes with an equal share of the costs of production in the bargain.  So on average spending will have "about average" impacts rather than "nothing to count".    If your earnings are growing then your absolute level of impacts on the earth are growing too, because both your way of earning and the diversity of things you spend on will be using a proportionally larger share of the whole economy and so its whole impacts.   If you just can't believe your earnings and appetites require using the whole economy, it only leaves you to guess what degree of below average impacts your dollars should have and why they’re different from everyone else’s.  

Maybe it'll become necessary for all products to provide accumulative CO2 receipts, to solve the problem that way.  Until then the easy and sound statistical assumption seems to be to identify the whole systems of working parts in nature, like the economy, and assume that *all the parts use the whole*, just like cells in your body.  That most natural systems seem to begin with some innovation to grow with a cellular structure, like the "silos" of language and culture we see in society, seems to be one of the more productive observations for navigating her natural structures.   Life itself is one of those "silos", as a whole system of working parts of species that all rely on the whole.  The evidence is that as a species of story tellers, people are just not getting the whole story, though.   Is the solution seems to involve looking at new kinds of information.   Is that as so different from occasionally having to leave the familiar relationships of the village to follow trails in the wilderness looking for new supplies? 



Keith, That all sounds very healthy, to look ahead at the new kinds of anthropology that will emerge, but many other disciplines have been reshaped by ideological battles or financial ones, and we're just emerging from a century of persistent preoccupation in the other sciences with converting the world into theory.   If anthropology remains a stand out in combining natural and social science and not succumbing to those forces it might even become more rather than less influential.  Perhaps being annoying and pushing against the grain will occasionally be called for too!  ;-)    

I'll be pleased to watch and see where things go.  If others see issues or have ideas they'd like to discuss by email that would be fine, id-at-synapse9-dot-com.   It's possible that some of my research methods might be of use in field work or historical studies.   Of course, I'm also looking for how to communicate with my home field, and get physics to acknowledge that studying how to get equations to work is not at all like studying how complex natural systems work. don't you think this collision with the earth we're seeing unfold will indeed become an eye opening experience fairly soon, on way or another?

Keith Hart said:

Phil, anthropology is no longer the property of the leading imperialist nations. ... clip

When a civilization acknowledges natural forces as gods - as all primitive and ancient highly sophisticated cultures such as the Egyptian - did and still do.  There was a longevity to the culture that resulted from understanding the fine balance.  We can see this.  Even today, indigenous peoples are speaking of their honor and respect for nature that is being violated by climate change.  This is being documented by anthropologists around the world - and made available on internet.

Anthropologists can lead the way in showing us in the most graphic ways possible the existence of non-monetary values
that produce articulate, healthy, philosophical people with a sense of future that they regard as their own without any delusions about influences coming from the outside.  

The great difficulty lies in translating these non-monetary values into a larger, highly abstract system of thought and belief (money can be a god) that can accomodate and respect the very particular and successful ways of small scale life.

See:  www.conversationsearth.org

Keith Hart said:

Phil, anthropology is no longer the property of the leading imperialist nations. In fact, I would say it is in decline in the US, Britain and France. But there are new anthropologies springing up all over the world in places like Brazil, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, East Asia. The OAC has been going for less than two years and we already have getting on for 5,000 members. Our aim is not to reproduce the guild system of the 20th century universities, but to provide a forum for new voices from everywhere to contribute to a conversation about what anthropology might become in the 21st century world.

I find particular inspiration from a new discussion on what is for the OAC an old theme in the Group 'Theory in Anthropology'. It's title is 'What's the use of Anthropology?' and it was posted by Elizabeth Pilar Challinor from Portugal. I would particularly draw your attention to this contribution to that thread by Daria Kucek from Budapest. I notice that she mentions nature more than once and has this particularly striking sentence:

"I see anthropology as a discipline in the service of both humanity and nature; as a device which can free humanity from an imposed body of knowledge, different systems, theories, which activate various destructive aspects of human behaviour."

I have asked her to come to our discussion and develop this idea.

Do you think the financialization of environmental conservation will empower the intellectual and financial elite in air-conditioned high-rise offices who have access to scientific knowledge and financial capital to dominate environmental issues and alienate the real "sons and daughters of the soil" who live in nature, encounter environmental problems daily, and rely on their traditional knowledge of conservation and belief system-based environmental ethics?


There's an environmental school of thought in developing countries that empowers natives, locals, and indigenous peoples in environmental conservation and sustainable development, which are parts and parcels of their quests for ancestral domain, cultural preservation, and economic self-determination.  The Indian government, for example, in its tribal rights policies does not separate the welfare of tigers from the welfare of tribals in North India.  I think this is more morally upright than bringing the influences of corporations to the forests and uplands.    


The financialization of environmental conservation and sustainability is a Western concept that I don't think will go well among natives, locals, and indigenous peoples.  I find the business of controlling the carbon footprints in developing countries using financial incentives very exploitative.  I also find some Western idea of sustainability like the seed policies of Monsanto and the genetically-engineered rice projects of IRRI problematic in the issue of conserving and sustaining native, local, and indigenous resources that include humans, plants, animals, knowledge, belief, and ethics.  

Kathryn and M. Izabel, I'd agree indigenous value systems tend to be more holistic, but there's also another source of "indigenous holistic thinking" that may be easier to translate for empowering "the intellectual and financial elite in air-conditioned high-rise offices". That's the holistic language of homemaking. A family is a natural complex system of cooperation that has to manage a complex energy budget, roughly similar to a global economy (for a smaller globe). Most people will understand perfectly well what happens if family members start making decisions without considering the effect on the rest of the family.

If someone invites friends to dinner and expects the homemaker to entertain them, for example, when dinner for two was already ready.. the price of food from that kitchen is likely to go up suddenly. That's somewhat parallel to what's now happening on the earth, and nature now having to resort to that stern response. There is a decade long growing worldwide wave of price increases for food and fuel resources, with the markets acting as if they were cornered and unable to satisfy demand. It's such an unfamiliar phenomenon it's not yet getting discussed, actually. Given the lack of discussion it would clearly seem to be happening naturally though. It could be a result of our ever increasing productivity in using things up, and the markets now switching from welcoming more demand to defending limited supplies.

The "intellectual elite" who use their culture of rules rather than watching their larger family of relationships actually think that accelerating their productivity in accessing more resources is still the way to create more supply. It always was the sure way to do it before, is the great irony. This seems to be the first time in natural history, when increasing productivity started causing resources to become suddenly more and more expensive. I have a short draft article on sustainable investing, with the graphs showing that with some discussion. http://www.synapse9.com/drafts/SustFuture-Article.pdf
Phil, I don't think household economics is a good model for financializing environmental conservation.  The last frontiers for environmental protection and sustainability are in rural areas.  In those areas, unfortunately, there is a gender disparity when it comes to issues concerning environmental problems.  Women run households, but their voices are, oftentimes, muted in communities.  They are mostly confined in homes and excluded in community affairs.  They are marginalized in political leadership and property ownership.  If their husbands sell their lands to factories or engage in dynamite fishing, they have no say.  They don't control rural politics and economies.  The head of the ruling party of India spoke in length about women and climate change and the need of including them in environmental and sustainable planning during her Commonwealth lecture in London a few weeks ago.  I also saw what she said in my village.  In communities with higher female participation, environmental conservation is a community not a family affair.  It is the community that empowers every individual member to play a role.  I don't see such paradigm in a corporate setup.  In an indigenous community, even a performer chants for the environment.  I do not see any marginalization since the goal is communal welfare, not profit or business to be enjoyed by just some. 



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