You are here

Privatizing Nature

The financial wizards of Wall Street have devised a new way to profit from Mother Nature. They’ve created a class of stocks called Natural Asset Companies that will "capture the intrinsic and productive value of nature and provide a store of value based on the vital assets that underpin our entire economy and make life on earth possible". The project was developed by the Intrinsic Exchange Group in partnership with the New York Stock Exchange, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the investment firm Aberdare Ventures.

According to the Intrinsic Exchange Group’ website, the purpose of these companies is the “conversion of natural assets into financial capital. … These assets make life on Earth possible and enjoyable. … They include biological systems that provide clean air, water, foods, medicines, a stable climate, human health and societal potential. … The potential of this asset class is immense. Nature’s economy is larger than our current industrial economy and we can tap this store of wealth and productivity.” They estimate the value of the “global ecosystem services market” at $125 trillion annually. Whilst presented as an ecological initiative (partners include the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International etc), to protect the natural environment from externalities, their objective is take away public control of the environment into private control: "The primary purpose of these companies is to maximize Ecological Performance, the production of ecosystem services, to which they have rights and authority to manage."

The Natural Asset Company will either own the land itself or will own the right to use and sell the resources of the land, including recreational access. For example, people could be charged for hiking and fishing on public land. The USA will eventually be included, but cash-strapped countries in Latin America are being targeted first. The government of Costa Rica has already expressed interest. The Minister of Environment and Energy, Andrea Meza Murillo, stated the project “will deepen the economic analysis of giving nature its economic value.” Although this will be a windfall for their elite, it will probably be a disaster for the indigenous people who draw their sustenance from the land.

The board of governors of the New York Stock Exchange saw such potential for profit that they took the unusual step of becoming a partner in the venture themselves. According to NYSE’s Michael Blaugrund, “Our hope is that owning a Natural Asset Company is going to be a way that an increasingly broad range of investors have the ability to invest in something that’s intrinsically valuable, but, up to this point, was really excluded from the financial markets.”

Natural Asset Companies are a yet another new way to turn public resources into private profits. They are another step towards what George W. Bush proudly touted as the "Ownership Society" in which everything becomes property. The juggernaut of capitalism is lurching closer to its endstation, where all life is commodified, reduced to money. Nature, including human beings, is being shrunken down to coins -- the Beezosification, Gatesification, Muskification of the universe.

The privatization of nature is as old as the State itself. Engel's eponymous book, "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State", drawing from the new anthropological evidence of the nineteenth century pointed out how the establishment of the state coincided with the establishment of class society. This confirmed earlier speculations from utopians like Rousseau who argued:

"The first man, who after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, "This is mine" and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of Civil Society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many misfortunes and horrors would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches, should have cried to his fellow! Be sure not to listen to the imposter; you are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equitably to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."

Adam Smith, usually seen as one of the first pro-capitalist economists, knew that that ownership of nature, a good that is in fixed and necessary supply, was a source of great profit but considered it unjust because nature existed independently and prior to labor. As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.... Every improvement in the circumstances of the society tends either directly or indirectly to raise the real rent of land, to increase the real wealth of the landlord, his power of purchasing the labour, or the produce of the labour of other people... The real value of the landlord's share, his real command of the labour of other people, not only rises with the real value of the produce, but the proportion of his share to the whole produce rises with it.

Marx agreed with much of the above; he saw humans as being within nature as part of the materialist philosophy: "Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” In the production process "nature" was one of the three great forces of production: land (i.e., nature), labor, and capital. In the labor theory of value, all produced value comes from labor; nature is the subject of labor, the material being worked on, whereas capital is the instruments of labor. Natural resources have value in virtue of the potential of labor being applied to them and by the fact that the natural environment provide use-value to its inhabitants. "Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. "

The allocation of a price to nature could provide a means to prevent damage due to pollution, for example, or as a means to allocate individual use-values. In both cases this can be used to provide public goods. The Manifesto of the Communist Party states, as the first short-term objective, "Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes." However, Natural Asset Companies seek to turn nature into a commodity. Rather than a means to help raise public wealth, NACs will be for private appropriation and monopoly profit. In other words, NACs are parasites. It's time to overthrow this parasitical system that is grabbing up more and more of the world.