Business interests and environmental crisis: A book review

While the environmental crisis threatens to impact the ecology and livelihoods in India, business interests take over sustainable solutions.
Business profits and the environmental crisis (Source: India Water Portal) Business profits and the environmental crisis (Source: India Water Portal)

A number of Asian countries are going through environmental crisis. Nowhere is the impact felt so seriously than in India, where the crisis threatens to affect survival. It is also impacting biodiversity, ecology and livelihoods. In this context, it becomes important to understand how nature and the current environmental crisis are being addressed in policy discourses.

Business interests and the environmental crisis

This book, 'Business Interests and the Environmental Crisis' edited by Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon and published by Sage publications, dwells on these pertinent questions. It argues that the current development discourse has been borrowed from the economic principles, leading to the commodification of nature and its resources, turning them into products with costs assigned to them.

Commodification of nature and the role of big businesses in conservation

Why has conservation assumed importance then? This has to do with the rising involvement of private players in businesses involving natural products and the market value assigned to them. Natural products are becoming increasingly scarce, threatening the existence of huge businesses that harness them for profit. This is forcing the private players, as well as the government, to take measures to conserve natural resources.

Big businesses have now assumed the role of leaders in solving the environmental crisis. Concerned about their own business prospects, several large corporations are supporting the stand taken by international organisations on conservation. The book informs that the formal dialogues organised by international conventions and global congregations on the environment now involve not just the affected parties, but private organisations as well. The mediators of the conflicts at these congregations are often scientists, policy makers, economists, legal experts, NGOs, environmental activists, indigenous leaders and heads of state. 

Parallels between environmental dialogues and business negotiations

Environmental dialogues have assumed the form of negotiations, similar to business agreements, where the vested interests of the corporations are passed off as philanthropic initiatives for a better world or a greener planet. These business-like agreements raise a number of ethical, legal dilemmas and controversies as they are often found to blur the boundaries between public and private, choice and obligation, production and consumption, benefits and costs and legality and corruption.

The book talks about these 'experts' of environmental problems who can be found everywhere--in villages and cities, in courtrooms, government chambers, corporate boardrooms and international conference halls--where scarcity of nature is looked at as nothing more than economic loss. The discussions in these meetings view nature's goods as commodities to be priced, owned, exploited, controlled or regulated by a few at the cost of the others.

The language of economics and outcomes of these business-led solutions

Do these solutions for business interests result in sustainable, equitable outcomes? The book presents a collection of essays that addresses this question. The essays are organised into two separate sections. The first section includes four chapters that highlight how the policy discourse, based on economic principles, creates new definitions of nature. This essentially leads to the commodification of nature and the alienation of local communities from their knowledge, resources and livelihoods. The next section includes four chapters that deal with the politics of participation, where alternative views are discussed to democratise the discourse for equitable outcomes.

Section I: Examining nature in business

Chapter 1: Bringing liquidity to life, markets for ecosystem services and the new political economy of extinction
This chapter highlights how scientific and ecological discourses have gradually adopted the language of economics to accomodate reigning economic doctrines; how financialisation has gradually led to the rise of market-based conservation policy and its frameworks.

Chapter 2: Claiming benefits, making commodities
Naturally occurring bioresources often do not have territorial limits and local communities play a major role in maintaining and sharing them at the local level. This chapter highlights how global and national regulations have changed this, leading to not just the commodification of bioresources and people's knowledge, but the setting up of markets where they are traded, leading to loss of voice of local communities and unequal means of benefit sharing.

Chapter 3: The abstract nature of building
This chapter presents the examples of three large infrastructural projects in Indian cities and demonstrates how the nature and the socio-ecological spaces in nature have been commodified and transformed into spaces that cater to the needs of national and international businesses while robbing the marginalised communities of their livelihoods.

Chapter 4:  Coal accounting: The story of fuel kept cheap
This chapter looks at how the politics of natural-resource accounting has led to coal being portrayed as the nation's fuel even when it has been found to cause huge environmental and social losses, wastage of public funds and violation of laws.

Section II: Democratic governance of nature

Chapter 5: Value as a justification in water resource development
This chapter highlights how commodification of natural resources has led to placing value on every aspect of nature. This has also led to considering something of no immediate use to humans as useless. The chapter gives examples of how this approach has influenced our idea of rivers and the belief that any water that cannot be taken up for human use is waste. The chapter argues for the need to democratise the concept of value in water-resource development.

Chapter 6: The effectiveness and equity of payments for reducing forest loss
Although efforts have been made in the past years to design PES and REDD+ schemes that can be more equitable and socially just, these are based on assumptions that individual actions are mainly driven by financial incentives and that forests can be commodified, privatised and commercialised. However, it has been found that individuals or traditional communities have restored forests for a number of reasons other than financial and these schemes might marginalise the communities further.

Chapter 7: Selling nature: Narratives of coercion, resistance and ecology
This chapter looks at the historical process that changed the forest landscape in Northern Bengal in the 19th and 20th centuries at great economic, social and ecological costs and how it led to the commodification and the destruction of forests and the exploitation of local communities in search of cheap labour. It traces the forest policies in the post-colonial era, the beginning of forest movement in North Bengal that argued for the need to have institutional mechanisms that looked at the social, ecological and economic needs of forest communities and the impact of the latest wave of neoliberal commodification of forests on the movement.

Chapter 8: Putting peoplehood at the centre of the green economy
This chapter attempts to solve the central problem of green economy by answering questions on the limits of commodification and the nature of a property by dwelling on the dominant assumptions around personhood and the nature of the markets. 

The book provides a very timely commentary on the current scenario where natural resources and habitats are increasingly becoming scarce, a number of conflicts between marginalised communities and big corporations have brought some serious issues--of development and displacement, natural and tailored environments, the right to natural resources and the control over it--to the forefront. It questions the very idea of business-led, mechanical solutions to the current environmental crisis that threaten to destroy the environment at the costs of the local, marginalised and poor communities and their livelihoods.

Through these chapters, the book aptly points at the inadequacies of these business-led solutions to find sustainable, inclusive, localised and appropriate alternatives and the political and ecological limits of this business-oriented approach. The book does not provide any easy solutions, but questions the very idea of regulation and the control of nature as a resource and the various ways in which this brings up ethical, legal dilemmas that one will need to deal with in the future.

A copy of the book can be bought from this site

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