Rio+20 and the rush to sell nature's invisible labor

Cross-posted from


by Daniel Kim on Saturday, February 26, 2011

One of the theoretical gems of my recent trip to Dakar came from hearing Bolivia's UN Ambassador Pablo Solon talk about "environmental services," like the "service" performed by a forest when it removes carbon from the air!

He talked about how capitalism is entering its third dimension. Capitalism began with the commodification of objects (mercantile goods for trade), then commodified human beings (labor power), and is now in the third dimension of commodifying of nature.

Nature's labor power--flows of "natural services" 

The key is that we’re not talking about nature in the older sense of natural “goods”--the buying and selling of forests, minerals, oil or water as scarce goods or as natural resources to be transformed by human labor to create “value.” Instead of looking at a forest only as a source of wood to make furniture and sell, here we're talking about the complex “work” that a forest does itself to remove a certain amount carbon from the air every hour. Or the delicate “work” that a rainforest ecosystem does each day to preserve an important biodiversity repository. Or the “work” a wetlands does around the clock to prevent costly natural disasters (buffering floods).

These "services" flowing from nature's everyday labors are a "green" capitalist's dream. Never before priced or traded on the market, nature's invisible labors are a vast untapped realm of value and profit, desperately needed to prop up the world economy in crisis. For instance, right now through programs like REDD every forest on the planet is being measured and inventoried. "It will take them 8 years," noted Solon. "But when they are done, they will be ready to open that global market." It will be worth billions and that's just the forests.

The deeper agenda of green capitalism begins with climate but goes much further

It's key to grasp this concept because it's at the heart of understanding how current climate negotiations fit into the deeper agenda of Rio +20.  Commodifying the "natural services" involved in the world's carbon cycle (climate change) is just the first stage of commodifying and privatizing nature as a whole to create a new world "green economy."  Also it makes clear that the purpose of "false solutions" such as REDD is not just to provide ways to sneak out of real emissions reductions.  They are also explicit tactics for commodifying "natural services" to develop new markets and mechanism for the new world "green economy."

Solon conjectured that this new "green market" would generate a "green economic bubble" that would provoke capitalism's next crisis.

How much is really at stake?  Here are some categories of ecosystem services and value numbers from 1987: