Risk, Property, and the Politics of Nature

Last year, the School of Global Studies (through the Centre for Global Political Economy), in conjunction with the ESRC STEPS Centre, held a conference on the Financialisation of Nature. The conference produced some exciting and thought-provoking dialogue on this important issue.

written by Kelly Kay

During March of this year, I was very fortunate to attend ‘Critical Perspectives on the Financialization of Nature—Theory, Politics, Practice’, a two-day workshop which was jointly convened by the Centre for Global Political Economy, the STEPS Centre, and the Doctoral School at the University of Sussex. The workshop brought together researchers and activists from around the world to discuss the pressing issue of the ongoing privatization, commodification, and now, increasingly, financialization of the biophysical environment, ecological processes, and more-than-human natures.

The highlight of the conference for me was a keynote speech by Jutta Kill, an activist who has worked with forest communities around the world in resisting market-based approaches to managing climate change, including voluntary certification schemes, payments for ecosystem service programs, and UN REDD projects. The talk was very inspiring, powerfully asserting that ‘consensus is the death of democracy’ and encouraging all who were present to speak truth to power through their research and practice.

Kill made two points that were, for me, particularly salient. The first flags one of the biggest differences between financialized approaches to environmental management and those which came before: the ascendance of risk. In the not-so-distant past, uncertainty was anathema to markets, which relied on predictable weather patterns, steady flows of natural resources, and regular rates of effective demand. Uncertainty makes populations and natures unruly and ungovernable, presenting obstacles for both state and capital. Michel Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics and James Scott’s work on legibility, as two examples, demonstrate the enduring desire to produce manageable and predictable environments.


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But, as Kill notes, through finance, uncertainty is transformed into risk, a metric which is calculable, and in some instances, even desirable. So long as uncertainty can be translated into risk through securitization or insurance, increasing volatility—both economic and climatic—becomes an opportunity for increasing rates of profit in financial markets. This mirrors what geographer Chris Knudson has referred to as ‘risk as resource.’ For Knudson, risk, once something to be avoided, has become a resource to be cultivated, as severe weather, crop loss, and other socio-natural hazards can now be translated into something which is lucrative for global finance; as he puts it: ‘financialized risk management is a kind of alchemy, turning the dangers to many into the profits of a few.’

This shift from uncertainty to risk is novel, and is something which researchers and activists should take seriously as global finance increasingly comes to play a role in global environmental governance and localized environmental risk management efforts.

The second point is about how we, as researchers, activists, and advocates, should be talking about the myriad approaches to market-based governance. Kill insists that the one commonality that these projects have, across locales, and regardless of if they are actually generating profits or not, is that they alter property rights regimes. Rather than arguing about if commodification is happening or not across specific cases, we should recognize that almost without exception, these market-based forms of management and governance alter, as well as create, rights to land and resources in ways have measurable impacts on the lives and livelihoods of peoples around the globe. By utilizing the language of property, we draw attention to the linkages between the creation of new assets, the enclosure of common lands and resources, the alteration of regimes of access and ownership, and the extraction of rents.

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Struggles over property relations are as old as time, having endured through colonialism, imperialism, and economic globalization, and offer a familiar and powerful unifying terrain. By trying to see these global projects as part of longstanding land-based struggles around the access to and control of resources, we are able to emphasize continuity, rather than change, and to work with activists and community organizers in terms that are familiar to them: land grabbing, enclosure, and exploitation.

This is not to say that we should ignore heterogeneity and local specificity for the sake of locating a singular homogenizing narrative, or that we shouldn’t practice conceptual precision with the terms that we use and the observations that we make (another major theme of the conference). Kill noted that she has had great successes in her own work with forest communities around the world by forgoing the language of commodification, marketization, financialization, and instead focusing on market-based governance as an affront to property and access rights. I think that it is certainly worth considering the ways that we might reframe our work, build coalitions, and forge resistance by recognizing the centrality of property relations to our research, activism, and policy work.

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Kelly Kay joined the Department of Geography at LSE in 2015 as an LSE Fellow in Environment. She completed both her MA and PhD in Geography at Clark University, and holds a BA in Environmental Studies from Lewis and Clark College. Her work is concerned with the political economy of the environment, with a focus on the changing structures of ownership and governance of protected areas, and the changing nature of the North American timber industry.

Kelly Kay joined the Department of Geography at LSE in 2015 as an LSE Fellow in Environment. She completed both her MA and PhD in Geography at Clark University, and holds a BA in Environmental Studies from Lewis and Clark College. Her work is concerned with the political economy of the environment, with a focus on the changing structures of ownership and governance of protected areas, and the changing nature of the North American timber industry.

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