Do crypto technologies offer a radical new way to fix the problems related to climate change and other forms of environmental destruction? Or are they just another set of “non-transformative” solutions that feed off technological optimism and solutionism? Making sense of claims advanced by climate-focused projects in the crypto space could be difficult: while many of them do sound well-intentioned and benign, they are also keen to invent new (and often bombastic) terms to describe practices for which older, already discredited terms do exist.
For example, one hears about the cool new trend of "regenerative finance" (or ReFi; see here for an accessible recent overview by some of its proponents) but without much reference to either “impact investing” or “social enterprise” or “market-based conservation” – some of the many earlier approaches on whose failed legacies ReFi advocates are building (even if they themselves are not fully aware of it). As a result, one tends to overestimate the novelty of their solutions while downplaying the ambiguity surrounding their potential efficacy: we do know such models do not work. On the plus side – at least for those involved – "you can make more money than you ever dreamt possible fighting the climate crisis" (as one ReFi advocate recently put it).
Seeing ReFi as just another manifestation of the underlying trends in neoliberal conservation allows one to mobilise many of the earlier critiques. That markets are now mediated by blockchains and tokens doesn’t change the underlying reality that market-based efforts to reverse climate change and conserve nature have not worked to date. (To get a taste of things to come, once NFTs become fully operational in this space, see here).
To discuss these matters, I’ve turned to Bram Büscher, a prolific scholar of the political economy of conservation, who has published widely on how the mainstream neoliberal discourse around conservation mobilised market-based and technological solutions to boost its legitimacy. Bram’s work is full of provocative concepts like “fictitious conservation” and “liquid nature”; we discuss their origins in the interview that follows. Personally, I have found the concept of “accumulation by conservation” – introduced in an article that Bram co-wrote with Robert Fletcher – extremely useful in grasping some of the "solutionist" dynamics involved in unleashing the forces of global financisalised capitalism to “save” nature.
I thought of interviewing Bram as I recalled reading his 2014 article on Nature 2.0, which argued that the emancipatory discourses around Web 2.0 were also influencing how we thought about conservation. This piqued my interest: as we are now facing the prospect of web3, what kind of Nature3 would be associated with it?
~ Evgeny Morozov
Keywords: neoliberal conservation, market-based instruments, capitalism, post-truth, Nature3, accumulation by conservation
In 2012, you co-authored a provocative article, which argued that while capitalism is often presented as an enemy of nature, the process of conserving nature, paradoxically, has become the friend of capitalism. For most people, however, there’s still something deeply anti-systemic about almost any effort to save the planet; your critique might sound a bit counterintuitive to them…
You are right that the conventional view still holds that there is something anti-systemic in efforts to save the planet, yet this is deeply flawed and highly problematic. As has been well-documented, conserving nature has been the friend of capitalism right from the start of the modern conservation movement in the 19th century.
They have never really been enemies, though of course there have been factions of the broader environmental movement that have had, and continue to have, strong anti-systemic roots and leanings. But wildlife conservation has never been part of that faction. From the start it was supported and even led by big capital and their elite friends in government and academia. In the US, for example, these included President Teddy Roosevelt, arch-racist and eugenicist Madison Grant. and the American Museum of Natural History president (and eugenicist) Henri Fairfield Osborne, and their elite business networks, amongst others.
Looking at the names involved, it does sound like a very elitist, top-down project… Did the broader neoliberal turn of the 1980s amplify some of these trends?
Clearly, while the history of conservation is complex and diverse, elites and big business have always been and remained central to it. In the 1960s and 1970s this was perhaps less obvious due to the many emancipatory movements and radical debates happening, but from the 1980s, supported by neoliberal ascendency, this was again brazenly on display. Indeed, as Rob Fletcher and I lay out in detail in our book The Conservation Revolution, it stimulated a qualitative change in the relation between conservation and capital from the ‘mediation’ of capital to allow nature to persist in certain areas, to capital being framed as the grand savior of nature.
Conservationists invented seemingly neutral, but highly ideological concepts such as ‘payments for environmental services’, ‘market-based mechanisms’, and ‘conservation economy’ that naturalised neoliberal approaches.
With the increasing dominance of neoliberalism as a governing ideology, it became ‘in vogue’ to work with and support the ‘private sector’ under the idea that we are all post-ideologically focused on ‘sustainable development’. Conservationists invented seemingly neutral, but in reality highly ideologically charged concepts and practices such as ‘payments for environmental services’, ‘market-based mechanisms’, and ‘conservation economy’ that all reflect the naturalisation of neoliberal market-mechanisms that serve to support economic growth and business-as-usual.
Back then already, but certainly now, we know that all this has been a massive distraction. It has done nothing to halt the swiftly escalating biodiversity crisis. In fact, our argument is that it helped to further legitimate it. This is, of course, what neoliberalism-as-ideology does: it places strong blinkers on what can be thought or imagined. Yet it does not make the coup less impressive: to invert the problem into the solution.
One of the core themes of your recent critical work has been to show the many contradictions of the already-mentioned “market-based instruments” (MBIs) of environmental governance. What are these MBIs and why are you not a fan?
Simply put, market-based-instruments aim to insert a market-logic into human relations with and governance of the rest of nature. Our interdependence with the rest of nature is then framed as a supply-demand relationship: ‘we’ depend on the ‘services’ that nature provides and hence we should pay for them so that they can be regenerated and conserved. But since we cannot pay nature directly, we actually pay other people to change their (land, environmental, or other) practices.
This sounds logical and simple, but given the complexity of human-nonhuman nature relations, the fact that most supply-demand ‘transactions’ between humans and the rest of nature are not neatly and linearly circumscribed in space and time and the fact that it is hard, if not often impossible, to actually do all this profitably (given that extraction and pollution are far more profitable than conservation under normal circumstances), market-based mechanisms actually rarely work in practice.
They don’t? It’s strange to hear this given how much support they have received over the past two decades. What are some of their shortcomings?
Let me group the existing critiques into five major strands. First, most MBIs don’t work as markets but mainly as subsidies or non-market transactions, very often supported by the state.
Second, if they do try to work as markets, they usually end up severing the direct link between demand (in this case, we are talking about humans’ unsustainable behavior or impacts) and supply (the particular environmental services being offered). They end up relying on proxy systems that promise the ‘off-setting’ of unsustainable practices somewhere else. The idea of ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ thus actually becomes wishful thinking, resting on the hope that somehow, somewhere, something ‘good’ is done to mediate one’s own environmental impact.
Third, markets are political; they are filled with imperfections, corruptions, interests, and assumptions. In the case of environmental MBIs, there are so many complicating factors and interests that, for all intents and purposes, anyone participating in them is mostly groping in the dark, all while pretending that there is some reliable link between impact and service. Sure, there has been a ‘verifying industry’ set up to ‘verify’ environmental gains like carbon capture and the like, but these verification practices are much less solid than often assumed.
Fourth, for MBIs to ultimately be effective, all actions of all humans must be fully measured, accounted for, and compensated/offset, which is impossible.
Fifth, MBIs do not tell people to moderate or accept limits: they make people believe their impacts can be offset by someone else, somewhere else. Thus, they end up legitimating further environmental destruction and CO2 emissions, while falsely making people feel good about themselves.
One case in point is that after over 20 years of voluntary carbon markets and trading there is no sign of any dent in the growth of global carbon emissions. The only meaningful dent that occurred was the accidental degrowth of the global economy in 2020 due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. But as we all know, since then gigantic amounts of public money have been spent to ensure that private accumulation could resume ‘as normal’ (with predictable results in terms of carbon emissions).
One conclusion that follows from your work is that even occasional anti-neoliberal forms of environmental intervention often end up entrenching the broader ideological and infrastructural dominance of the neoliberal paradigm. Your frequent co-author Rob Fletcher, for example, has also argued that “non-market mechanisms appear to be advocated in the service of a neoliberal project writ large.” How exactly does this non-neoliberal/neoliberal dynamic play out in practice?
Fletcher and (his co-author) Breitling’s argument is very insightful and important. Basically, they argue that since market-mechanisms do not work as markets in practice, it is critical for the state to step in and ‘subsidise’ them to ensure some environmental gains. That is why Fletcher and Breitling term MBI’s ‘subsidies in disguise’. But they argue that the ‘disguise’ is important here, as this allows the state to continue to support broader neoliberal ideologies even if they don’t work in practice.
Our alternative stresses conviviality: to learn how to meaningfully live with the rest of nature, in all its glory, mundaneness, and every-day-ness, in actual places, with actual people, and within actual contexts and histories.
Their example was the national payments for environmental services scheme in Costa Rica, which has become a well-known and oft-studied case, but in my own research in South Africa I saw an even more brazen scheme where the success of a payments-for-environmental-services scheme was widely and internationally touted, while it had not even been implemented yet. Basically, the World Bank subsidised environmental economic consultants to market the idea of ‘payments for environmental services’ (and themselves).
Your work brims with interesting concepts – "natural capital," "liquid nature," "fictious conservation." Could you give us a quick introduction to these three at least? How do you see web3 and blockchain technologies fitting into this analytical framework?
Sure. We did not come up with this term, 'natural capital'. I did coin those other terms, but 'natural capital' comes from the networks of conservationists and economists who try to marry capitalism and conservation. What the term signifies for us is that these networks have come full circle: the problem (capital) is now rendered indistinguishable from that which they want to save (nature). It is the ultimate contradiction of our time, and it is hard to overstate how foolish this is. But this is why understanding neoliberalism is so important: as Rob Fletcher argues in his forthcoming book, it has become a hegemonic ideological system that continues to ‘fail forward’ despite its massive flaws and contradictions.
The concept of 'liquid nature' was meant to designate the types of nature that natural capital ultimately conserves: floating, ephemeral, discursive natures that have little relation to actual material natures in actual places. It relates to the idea of market liquidity whereby more alienation is something positive: it allows for a quicker circulation of commodities to enable more profits and turn-over. In any ‘regular’ market (cars, phones, etc.), this is already a silly proposition that shows the meaninglessness of capitalism. Regarding nature, however, it becomes truly tragic: an ephemeral, liquid nature is a deeply alienated nature, which is precisely what ‘natural capital’ promotes.
Not only does this not actually lead to any meaningful conservation ('fictitious conservation'), it leads to a deeper estrangement from the rest of nature. And how a deeper alienation from nature is supposed to help us live better with it, is beyond me. This is precisely why our alternative stresses conviviality: to learn how to meaningfully live with the rest of nature, in all its glory, mundaneness, and every-day-ness, in actual places, with actual people, and within actual contexts and histories. All this is highly ambiguous, and this is precisely the point.
Blockchain seems to function precisely to limit or even erase the influence of context, history, and positionality on online transactions and activities, something that will lead to greater unintended consequences and new conflicts.
I do not see how web3 and blockchain can fit within this picture. This is not because I am ‘against’ technology, but because I believe that any ‘high’ technology should only be a subservient tool to support broader social, economic, political, and ecological processes of change. It must be put in its place: as completely secondary and subservient, rather than as the main entry-point and in the lead. Tech enthusiasts generally do not get this: for them the technology is central. The key question for me therefore becomes: how can we employ high technologies without their logics driving the change process? I do not have an answer to this but would be interested to hear what others say about this.
There’s been some discussion, for example, of how tokenisation could help accelerate the issuance of green bonds. Wouldn't you see the new climate-related tokens and DAOs as a major innovation in market-based instruments?
Tokens and tokenisation can, indeed be seen as an innovation in this field, but I do not see how they move beyond the objections just outlined.
Climate x Crypto, a directory of initiatives at the intersection of climate and crypto, lists several dozen projects, many of them quite recent. Does crypto, as an exciting new brand, allow for the project of neoliberal conservation to continue in a somewhat surreptitious manner? Are these crypto initiatives part and parcel of what you have described as “fictitious conservation”?
Yes, I agree. Even worse: all these initiatives use exceedingly complicated technologies, mired in acronym-ridden tech language to basically render even more complicated what was not working in the first place. They are, indeed, fictitious, in that A) they cannot guarantee a relevant equivalency between (human) impacts and (environmental) services other than in fantasy, and B) they are based on a broader fiction more generally: that new technologies and growth can somehow get us out of the climate or biodiversity crises when it has been obvious for decades that they do not.
The term “crypto” refers to a slew of technologies with rather spotty, even controversial, environmental track records. Oddly, while we hear of tokenisation powering green bonds and of many other environmental benefits of blockchain-based technologies, these accounts rarely mention that problematic track record. Maybe it’s for this reason that the utopian claims made about crypto and climate have to constantly expand: this might be the only way to keep the associated environmental costs out of view. Have you seen similar dynamics with earlier technologies?
In my first book (Transforming the Frontier) I concluded that the way that neoliberal conservation deals with failure is to ratchet up promised future benefits to ever greater, even ridiculous proportions. In the book, I examined so-called ‘peace parks’ who, after the general failure of community-based conservation programs that tried to link community development to biodiversity conservation, subsequently promised the same and added peace, international collaboration, ecotourism profits, and a host of other ‘wins’.
I think this is part of neoliberal politics more generally, especially in such hyped spaces as the tech world, where everybody is always anxiously trying to predict, invent, or get on board with ‘the next big thing’. It is hyper-future oriented and hence often learns little to nothing from history. Indeed: historical complications stand in the way of the jubilations around future benefits and pointing them out makes some people feel like you are questioning their ‘do-good’ motives – after all, they ‘really just want to do their bit to save the world’. Clearly, the problems with blockchain and crypto are much larger than their investment in neoliberal politics and truth regimes, but the latter do often allow for hiding the problems (at least until the next craze, trend, or tool comes along and absorbs the focus).
There’s a lot of buzz in the crypto space right now about “regenerative finance” or ReFi (something of a sibling to the more popular term of “decentralised finance” or DeFi). There’s something very populist and appealing about it, as it feeds off the general anxiety about needing to make capitalist finance work not only in the interests of climate but also those of society at large. Do you see the celebration of ReFi as fitting into your broader critique of neoliberal conservation, which presents capitalism both as the problem to be solved and as the very solution to it?
To be honest, I don’t know much about ReFi or DeFi. It is hard to keep up with all the different terms and trends flying around in the development space. But my general approach to any new trend is to see A) whether they take (the critique of) political economy seriously and B) whether a broader degrowth agenda is part of their initiative. If not, then I don’t see how they will make any systemic difference. Whether this is the case with ReFi or DeFi I don’t know. But the point that capitalism is often presented as both the problem and the solution is something always to be alert to.
Behind the appeal of many web3 initiatives lies the promise of decentralisation: in a world structured by crypto technologies, power will shift from rigid and centralised institutions to flexible and local communities, who will be able to run their own infrastructures and economies. This promise of decentralisation and the emergence of more participatory, grassroots-run structures has long been present in conservation circles, too. For example, it underpins Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), an approach to natural resource management that once held the radical promise of democratisation. You’ve written about CBNRM’s failures and successes. What happened to its radical potential? Did CBNRM succumb to co-existing with neoliberal conservation, turning from one of its foes to one of its enablers and legitimisers? Shouldn’t one expect the same fate to befall web3?
Yes, you are right that decentralisation has been promised for a long time in many spheres and I would still hold that a meaningful form of the decentralisation of power could be a good thing under some circumstances. Related to the CBNRM paradigm, we conducted a global overview study to look at how various forms of decentralisation have worked across the globe and the picture was mixed. In some cases, there was some meaningful decentralisation of power, but in others not at all. But the key to all cases was that decentralised and central layers of power still need to relate to each other in mutually supportive ways, and that this was often lacking. Moreover, if the overall guiding framework remains firmly neoliberal (focused on economic growth, faith in capitalist market-mechanisms in all sectors, and allowing elite classes to continue to widen inequality) then decentralisation can never be a meaningful strategy.
If we look at crypto initiatives and decentralisation more generally, we see that this is a decentralisation based on the need to trust technology rather than people. Indeed, the whole idea behind blockchain is that you don’t have to trust other people because everybody can check the veracity of transactions on the distributed ledger, etc. I do not see how a technology that is explicitly built on not trusting other people – and that might reduce our trust in each other yet further – can be a fruitful way forward to living well together.
Back in 2014, you wrote a great article on Nature 2.0, arguing that the practices and discourses around Web 2.0 were rapidly changing the world of nature conservation. As we are facing the crypto-powered web3, it might be worth re-examining your 2014 article to see the contours of the emerging Nature3. As your article points out, it was emblematic of Nature 2.0 for some search engines to promise that “you can help protect the rainforest just by searching the web.” The logic of Nature3 seems far more financialised, but just as effortless: protecting the rainforest takes the form of accumulating and trading environmental tokens. What do you make of this new Nature3?
You are right, it might be worth examining what a Nature3 looks like. Even though I am highly skeptical, it is still important to examine these trends and unearth their specificities and particularities, and how these translate into how they view nature. At first glance, however, I do not see how DAOs, tokens, and NFTs make any meaningful departure away from the problems with MBIs mentioned above.
Interestingly, some initiatives like Single.Earth – it bills itself as 'a marketplace that protects nature by making carbon removal and biodiversity tradeable' – do hint at overcoming point four of my critique above (i.e. that all actions of all humans must be fully measured, accounted for, and compensated/offset). However, what they do in reality is to make a ‘digital twin’ of ‘natural elements’, which completely leaves out the power dynamics, histories, different actors, local struggles over land, etc. In short: it leaves out all those things that in practice need to be tackled to make any meaningful difference. In the end, though they talk about ‘tokens’, NFTs, and other new tech tools, they still rely on monetizing biodiversity and trading its ‘services’ and basically seem to render more complicated what was not working in the first place.
Your account of Nature 2.0, while recognizing Web 2.0’s role in accelerating the commodification of nature, also highlighted the possibilities for decommodification that were also made possible by these new digital technologies. From the vantage point of 2021, do you think that your early optimism was justified? Do we have good grounds to be optimistic about the radical emancipatory potential of web3?
Unfortunately not. I did, in the beginning of this trend, see some signals at decommodification and this is why I noted this. But I see few of these now. What I do see is some of these new ‘social tech entrepreneurs’ willing to question economic growth and other, more standard capitalist dicta. But I do not yet see how these (can) add up to a more systemic alternative, seeing how most of their systemic analyses are not based on any in-depth understanding of political economy.
More generally, as I argued in a footnote at the end of my book The Truth About Nature, I also do not see how the hyped-up blockchain technologies will fundamentally change the workings of platform power. Besides the enormous energy demands of distributed ledger systems, they seem to not be as impervious as often stated; they seem to thrive on, and so stimulate, rather absolutist ideas about property rights and do not do away with or threaten many (current and other) intermediary structures, including the big tech companies.
There’s a very interesting distinction between truth and fact in your recent work. It seems that it can be very fruitfully applied to understand the false promises but also some of the greatest limitations of blockchain technologies…
One of the core value propositions of blockchain technologies, according to Kevin Werbach, is what he refers to as 'shared truth', where 'everyone can have a copy of the master ledger, but no participant can claim its own ledger is the final word'. This, in my conceptualisation, is not truth but 'fact': a piece of information that does not consider context, history, and the positionality of different actors (i.e. issues of class, race, gender, age, etc.). Indeed, blockchain seems to function precisely to limit or even erase the influence of context, history, and positionality on online transactions and activities, something that will, I venture, lead to greater unintended consequences and new conflicts, particularly if the technology continues to develop in a hyper-capitalist political economy that continues its hellbent focus on economic growth at all costs.
To reiterate: for me, the blockchain is based not on truth but on fact. And the difference between truth and fact is that the former takes into account history, context, and different positionalities and despite – or rather, because of – this diversity and unevenness, still makes a point that supersedes and says something accurate. For me, the difference between fact and truth becomes clearer if you explain why one can ‘speak truth to power’ and why ‘speaking fact to power’ does not make sense. Speaking fact to power does not make sense because a unit of knowledge that is correct outside of context, history, and positionality does not do justice to how power is always embedded in precisely these elements.
Most radical political changes have been enabled through a narrative of some kind. In pinning so many radical hopes on the blockchain – a narrative-less and facts-obsessed technology par excellence – are we potentially risking to also disable some of the more radical and imaginative political options, both in terms of reacting to climate change and on other fronts?
Facts can be powerful, but they cannot take into account those things that do not rationally add up, that cannot be explained in any straightforward manner, that often do not make sense or that are highly ambiguous – i.e. most basic things in life. A narrative is a discursive structure that makes sense of inherently ambiguous elements; it brings some of them together in a storyline that allows one to see or understand something bigger. The opposite of narrative is additive: simply to count and add all disparate things on top of one another. Addition has the benefit of making things seem straightforward that in reality are not straightforward at all.
This is precisely what MBIs and now algorithms do also. In the process, they allow for more knowledge (which answers 'why' questions) but less understanding (which gives meaning to knowledge by including history, context, and positionality); more information, less insight; more facts, less truth. In fact, I argue in my book that these algorithmic structures actively promote and stimulate post-truth, which renders our already dangerous environmental predicaments even more intractable. From this perspective, it is no surprise that the base narrative of blockchains is an equally narrow, additive idea of the human. But it is foolish: the more ambiguity humans try to eliminate through technology, the more it comes back to haunt them.
Bram Büscher is Professor and Chair of the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University and holds visiting positions at the University of Johannesburg and Stellenbosch University. Bram has published widely on the relations between nature, development, and political-economy; and is the author of The Truth About Nature. Environmentalism in the Era of Post-Truth Politics and Platform Capitalism (University of California Press, 2021), and co-author, together with Robert Fletcher, of The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene (Verso, 2020). Bram is one of the senior editors of Conservation & Society.