Review of Nature™ Inc. Environmental Conservation in the Neoliberal Age

NatureTM IncReview of Bram Büscher, Wolfram Dressler and Robert Fletcher (eds.), Nature™ Inc. Environmental Conservation in the Neoliberal Age (The University of Arizona Press, 2014), 298 pages, $60.00

Reviewed by Tiago Freitas

The book edited by Bram Büscher, Wolfram Dressler and Robert Fletcher is arguably the most comprehensive and up-to-date critical account of neoliberal environmental conservation, grouping together authors with different but complementary approaches and cutting-edge research.  The discussion on neoliberal conservation is certainly not new and this book acknowledges previous scholarship and is itself the result of previous substantial discussion in journal issues and articles.

It provides innovative theoretical work. Throughout the book Marxist political economy is fused with Foucaultian concerns with governmentality, or other approaches, from Bourdieu to Latour or Žižek. The book thus represents an engagement with (post-)Marxism as well as poststructuralist strands that have evolved concurrently, and that have especially contributed to the field of political ecology. There would therefore be more to the material aspect of neoliberalism – an important discursive aspect as neoliberal economics and governance would operate in society so as to discipline and streamline the thought and action of individuals. Issues of technologies of government, modes of subjectivation, or contextualized micropolitics are hence of central importance here.

The editors wisely remind us in the Introduction that there has been a misuse of and conceptual confusion with the term “neoliberalism” in literature. Given that it is more of a process – a diffuse, sporadic, uneven process, in articulation with local contexts, the term “neoliberalisation” would be better suited. Neoliberalisation would therefore unfold differently in different contexts, notwithstanding some general tendencies such as the reliance on the market, and the roll out of the State.

The “reinvention” of the global conservation movement has gone hand in hand too with the neoliberalist tendencies. The reliance on “the market” seems now the more innovative and “efficient” way to deal with the threats posed to nature, with States and NGOs increasingly turning to market forces that have hence colonized conservation policies and practices all over the world. Building on Arsel and Büscher (2012), the authors refer to this trend as “Nature™ Inc.”- trademarking because the nature in question must be protected, legalized and institutionalized by particular systems of power and associated symbols; while incorporated due to the increasingly corporate nature of socio-environmental processes.

The editors call for an investigation of how Nature™ Inc. is reshaping human-nature relations. Surely these relations have already been shaped by two centuries of capitalist (colonial) development but it was only at the end of the 20th century with the rise of neoliberalism that the “ecological phase” of capitalism started. It evolved hand in hand with the UN environment conferences (Stockholm 1972, Rio de Janeiro 1992) and the development of the win-win-win rhetoric of sustainable development and its most recent phase of “green economy” (Rio+20 conference in 2012) consisting of yet another intensification of Nature ™ Inc.

Ecotourism, payments for ecosystem services and financial and technological instruments such as species and wetlands banking or carbon trade are a reflection of that. In an age of quantification of environmental services and commodification of nature (but is it possible or ethically appropriate to give a price to nature?), the neoliberal intensification of environmental conservation seems to have achieved its highest point as innovative financial mechanisms such as environmental derivatives trade in markets only loosely linked to actual landscapes.

All these recipes of neoliberal conservation surely seem benevolent but considering that the very expansion and deepening of capitalism is the main cause of the ecological crisis, are capitalist markets the answer to their own ecological contradictions?

The different authors contributing to this book have explored this and provide a diversity of empirical contexts. As it is a highly complex and ambiguous matter, the book tries to organize literature in three main logical parts corresponding to the most significant lines of critical analysis:

Part I, on ‘Nature ™ Inc. – Society Entanglements’, looks at how neoliberal principles such as commodification, competition, financialisation, among others, produce, in situ, new landscapes and society-nature relations. It includes chapters by Wolfram Dressler, with an ethnographic approach to local conservation in Palawan (the Philippines) and the progression from “first” to “second” and “third” natures; Ken MacDonald and Catherine Corson who study the social construction of “natural capital” in global biodiversity financing; and Frank Matose’s ethnography of forest communities in Zimbabwe and their overt and covert resistance to neoliberal conservation.

Part II, on ‘Representations of Nature ™ Inc.’ looks at discourses, perceptions and representations of neoliberal conservation and how these legitimate and sell new relations between humans and nature. It starts with Robert Fletcher’s chapter, inspired by Foucault and Žižek, on the gap between “vision” and “execution” of neoliberal governance in conservation programmes. It continues with Dan Brockington’s chapter on the role of celebrities in the deepening of neoliberal conservation, in the current context of “post-democracies” and spectacularization of conservation. Peter Wilshusen then presents an examination of the discursive extension and transformation of the term ‘capital’ (drawing on Bourdieu’s notions of capital), now encompassing the ‘natural capital’, which he argues erases power by masking a greater economic reductionism within conservation. Larry Lohmann concludes this section investigating how “performative equations” in the context of carbon markets “make things the same” and favor capitalist extraction, commodification and accumulation.

Part III, on ‘Nature on the Move: The Global Circulation of Natural Capital’ and resulting from the combined effects of the two other parts, looks at the mechanisms that go beyond the local and enable global abstraction and circulation of “natural capital”. It starts with Bram Büscher’s account of “fictitious conservation” resulting from the commodification of nature in neoliberal markets and where the value generated is difficult to connect with the actual resources being conserved. Elaborating on this, Jim Igoe then investigates the trend of circulation of spectacular imagery, through market-based interventions, and the evolution of “nature for contemplation” towards the ever more common “nature for speculation”. Finally, Sian Sullivan points to a diversity of other ways of conceptualizing human-nonhuman relations in non-Western societies and premodern Europe which may cast light on the quest for alternatives to Nature ™ Inc.

This book provides a very useful tool for academics and activists (and hopefully policy makers too) to try to grasp the complexity and nuances of the ever more present neoliberal conservation. Even if it may be a challenging read for those not trained in the concepts of political economy, throughout the book the examples provide a didactical way of understanding the widespread implications of Nature ™ Inc. Apart from identifying its influence in current environmental conservation programmes, the book also highlights possible alternatives to the mainstream Nature ™ Inc. Even if these are not explored in depth, by unveiling the contradictions and the everyday life implications of Nature ™ Inc. and by suggesting possible directions away from it, the book is a enormous contribution to counterpose Nature ™ Inc.’s  homogenizing tendencies.

The impacts of the adoption of (increasingly neoliberal) conservation models are well depicted in this book. However, not enough attention is given to the other side of the issue, i.e., reactions against this (western-led) environmentalism, especially in the Global South, which in turn affect traditional communities, such as indigenous peoples, and the environment. Such issues also deserve academic attention as there is already significant empirical evidence suggesting that the backlash prompted against the influence of foreign environmental thinking can have significant socio-environmental consequences. A noticeable example is Andrea Zhouri’s (2010) investigation of how State-led development projects and hostility toward foreign NGOs working in the Brazilian Amazon has affected indigenous peoples as well as environmental protection in the area.

This “other” side of environmental conservation may well be beyond the scope of the book but represents an under-studied area of significant relevance in many parts of the Global South. In fact, States can be overtly against western-led environmentalism (e.g. some of Latin American’s leftist governments) and/or with a developmentalist strategy aimed at the emancipation from the “global periphery” (e.g. most of Latin American countries). As Andrea Zhouri and other Latin American scholars have shown, State actions and State-led discourses actively promote the occupation of the territory or exploration of natural resources and depict environmental conservation as an obstacle to “development”. The State, powerful state-led companies and public-private partnerships (neoliberal capitalism working here too), including local elites, propel a “development-at-all-costs” strategy engulfing traditional communities territorial rights and the environment, while at the same time criticizing western-led environmentalism and interference. Notions of development and associated regimes of truth thus need to be grasped, away from Manichean stances depicting Nature ™ Inc. as the sole source of all “evils”.

There is still much space for new research as new or existing themes and locations are evaluated. Further elaboration of the impacts of and alternatives to Nature ™ Inc. would enable the development of a larger agenda in which “other” scholars and knowledge are fully recognized, especially those less visible academics who are not English speakers in the Global South. These would help to de-colonize research on neoliberal conservation, with more comprehensive and critical accounts fully informed by local knowledge and priorities.

Further Reading

Arsel M and Büscher B (2012) Nature ™ Inc.: Changes and Continuities in Neoliberal Conservation and Environmental Markets. Development and Change 43(1): 53-78.

Brockington D (2011) Ecosystem Services and Fictitious Commodities. Environmental Conservation 38(4): 367-69.

Castree N (2008) Neoliberalising Nature: Processes, Effects, and Evaluations. Environment and Planning A 40(1): 153-73.

Castree N (2008) Neoliberalising Nature: The Logics of Deregulation and Reregulation. Environment and Planning A 40(1):131-52.

Fletcher R (2010) Neoliberal Environmentality: Towards a Poststructuralist Political Ecology of the Conservation Debate. Conservation and Society 8(3): 171-81.

Igoe J (2010) The Spectacle of Nature in the Global Economy of Appearances: Anthropological Engagements with the Spectacular Mediations of Transnational Biodiversity Conservation. Critique of Anthropology 30(4): 375-97.

Macdonald K (2010) The Devil is in the (Bio)diversity: Private Sector Engagement and the Restructuring of Biodiversity Conservation. Antipode (42)3: 513-50.

Sullivan S (2013) Banking Nature? The Spectacular Financialisation of Environmental Conservation. Antipode 45(1): 198-217.

Zhouri, A (2010) “Adverse forces” in the Brazilian Amazon: Developmentalism versus Environmentalism and indigenous rights. Journal of Environment & Development 19: 252-73.

Tiago FreitasTiago Freitas is in the final year of his PhD at King’s College London, Department of Geography.

With a degree in Environmental Biology, he worked as a policy analyst at the European Parliament before his return to academia. His PhD is about the political ecology of biofuel development and geopolitics of land use in Brazil.

More recently, he has begun research on environment-society relations in Portuguese speaking countries, contributing to the development of a ‘Lusophone political ecology’ (forthcoming: Freitas TAM and Mozine ACS (2015) Towards a Lusophone political ecology: assessing ‘para inglês ver’ environments. In Bryant R (ed) International Handbook of Political Ecology. London: Elgar).

Readers may also be interested in the following material:

The TCS special issue, Energy & Society, edited by David Tyfield and John Urry:

The TCS special issue, Changing Climates, edited by Bronislaw Szerszynski and John Urry:

The TCS special section, Naturecultures: Science, Affect and the Non-human, edited by Joanna Latimer and Mara Miele:

The Body & Society special section, Bodies of Nature, edited by Phil McNaghten and John Urry:

Phil McNaghten’s Problematising Global Knowledge entry on ‘Nature’:


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