It’s 42. Or: Natural Capital

In his lecture at the University of Sheffield, “Put a price on nature? We must stop this neoliberal road to ruin”, (manuscript published online by The Guardian) journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot talked about what he called the Natural Capital Agenda:


“[…] As Thomas Piketty, a name which is on everybody’s lips at the moment, so adeptly demonstrates in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, what has happened over the past thirty years or so has been a great resurgence of patrimonial capitalism, of a rentier economy, in which you make far more money either by owning capital or by positioning yourself as a true self-serving flea upon the backs of productive people, a member of an executive class whose rewards are out of all kilter with its performance or the value it delivers. You make far more money in either of those positions than you possibly can through entrepreneurial activity. If wealth under this system were the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.
So just at this moment, this perfect moment of the total moral and ideological collapse of the neoliberal capitalist system, some environmentalists stumble across it and say, “This is the answer to saving the natural world.” And they devise a series of ideas and theories and mechanisms which are supposed to do what we’ve been unable to do by other means: to protect the world from the despoilation and degradation which have done it so much harm. I’m talking about the development of what could be called the Natural Capital Agenda: the pricing, valuation, monetisation, financialisation of nature in the name of saving it.”

Showing various examples of how governments, companies or national deveopment agencies try to fix the right monetary value of “nature”, Monbiot is concluding:

“I know what you’re thinking: it’s 42. But Deep Thought failed to anticipate the advent of Strictly Come Dancing, which has depreciated the will to live to the extent that it’s now been downgraded to 41. It is complete rubbish, and surely anyone can see it’s complete rubbish. Not only is it complete rubbish, it is unimprovable rubbish. It’s just not possible to have meaningful figures for benefits which cannot in any sensible way be measured in financial terms.”

It is complete rubbish, and surely anyone can see it’s complete rubbish. Not only is it complete rubbish, it is unimprovable rubbish. It’s just not possible to have meaningful figures for benefits which cannot in any sensible way be measured in financial terms.”

I am not sure if I would agree that neoliberlism or the neoliberal capitalist system is about to collapse. But apart from this, there is another point, or rather, link, that I would like to add. The monetarization of “nature” is not about people who want to do the right thing, but fail by choosing the wrong means. Taking a more systematic approach, many scholars have shown that monetarization or commodification of nature is intrinsic to neoliberal capitalism, and in a general form to capitalism itself. And this brings about a further point that links recent developments that Monbiot is mentioning but apparently not connecting to each other. “Capital” itself is always in search for new forms of investments, in this processes are intensifying with the resurgence of “patrimonial capitalism” or “rentier economy”, that Monbiot, citing Piketty, is mentioning. Natural resources, the information and value they are containing and the “services” they are providing, have been commodities in various forms since long, and they are especially attractive to capital investment in times of high insecurity in financial markets. So, the commodificatoin of “nature” is not taking place despite the collapse or crises of neoliberal capitalism, but because of it, and an analysis of the changing forms of commodification in neoliberal times – the commodification of nature, of human interaction, finally “the commodification of everything”  – might provide useful to understand these complex developments better.


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