Conference Theme: Theorising the Financialisation of the Biosphere
As the repercussions of the events of 2008 continue to ricochet around the world’s financial markets, and as the credit crisis matures into a seemingly interminable sovereign debt crisis, the question of systemic risk, banished from the mainstream economics profession during Greenspan’s “Great Moderation”, has become central to theoretical and practical debates regarding global finance. Heterodox accounts of finance which stress its capacity to undermine ‘the real economy’ are re-gaining legitimacy as the neoclassical world of serene equilibria and optimal risk allocation appears ever more fanciful. And while the events of the ongoing financial crisis – unprecedented market volatility, anaemic rates of economic growth, currency wars, bailouts, anti-austerity and anti-bank protests – occupy the 24 hour news cycle, a crisis with far more ominous consequences continues in the back ground.
The biosphere finds itself in the midst of the sixth mass extinction crisis since life emerged. Biologists estimate that the irreversible consignment of species to extinction is now occurring at 1000 times the normal rate. Fisheries and tropical rainforests continue to disappear. The biosphere is in negative growth territory, continually being reduced in both size and complexity. And yet rarely are the potentially causal interactions between the crises of financialisation and of the biosphere considered. Indeed if anything characterises the transformation of environmental policy over the last decade it is the notion that the risk of ecological meltdown should be transferred to the financial markets and managed on a for-profit basis.
Given that biospheric events are now routinely traded on financial markets (food commodities, carbon futures, weather derivatives, catastrophe bonds, seafood futures), it’s time to contemplate the comprehensive financialisation of the biosphere. Global efforts to conserve and restore ecosystems are increasingly wedded to the economistic language of ‘ecosystem services’ (witness the establishment by UNEP and the CBD of an International Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and indeed to the luxuriant evolution of new ‘ecosystem markets’ (wetland, ecosystem and species banks, biodiversity offsets, rainforest bonds, tiger extinction derivatives). Increasingly, the environment of ‘the environment’ is global finance.
Economists and politicians are divided within the neoliberal consensus, with some advocating the construction of the ‘missing markets’ required to securitise these ‘ecological infrastructure assets’, and others calling into question the truth status of environmental science as a public good amid calls for the further subjection of research budgets to privatisation.
The conference invites critical, cross-disciplinary interventions from researchers on the following questions:
>> What are the consequences of the conceptual convergence of financial and ecological ontologies through metaphor? Metaphors of complexity, resilience, and financial evolution proliferate in discussions of the ‘ecology of markets’, and financial metaphors pervade recent literature in ecology (ecosystem services, spatial insurance, extinction debts, natural capital etc.)
>> Is the proposition to manage one destabilised, complex and increasingly chaotic system (the biosphere) with another (global financial markets) an affirmation of Hayek’s faith in spontaneous organisation and decentralisation, is it a form of ‘governing through disorder’, or does it rather augur the centralisation of ownership and network control over the earth’s remaining ecosystems within private finance houses?
>> How might these new financial instruments and markets imply the generation of novel forms of property and what are the effects of these on the ground, e.g. for research scientists, land-use planners, conservation managers, landowners, farmers, indigenes.
>> How are the practices of academic and field scientists being reconfigured to support these developments, for example in the requirement to measure, standardise, ‘unbundle’, or verify the ecological unit, flow or yield to be monetised, capitalised or traded? How is this borne out in the inventorying, digitising and databasing of the underlying biodiversity asset (databases for species, functional traits, genes), and in what way might these informatic architectures be connected to trading platforms used by financial actors?
>> What versions of political ecology or ecological economics might meaningfully incorporate financial markets while offering an account of ‘the economy’ which is genuinely grounded in physical and ecological phenomena?
>> How do we move beyond the false choice of financialisation or denial?
NB: It is intended that a special issue proposal will be submitted to the Journal of Cultural Economy including select papers from the conference. Researchers who are unable to attend the conference are nevertheless encouraged to submit expressions of interest and paper proposals for the special issue.
** One equity scholarship supporting international flight costs and accommodation in Sydney is available to scholars from the Indian Ocean/South Asia region, courtesy of the Indian Ocean and South Asia Research Network (UTS).
Dr Jeremy Walker
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University of Technology, Sydney
PO Box 123, Broadway 2007, NSW Australia
ph) +61 2 9514 2330
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