The transcendent economics of nature

The transcendent economics of nature

In other articles, I have considered the way different valuations of the environment are created and how these categorizations of nature hold benefit or cost for environmental goals. Today, let us ask the question of how the market values nature and to what end?

In developing this topic, I met with Cara. Cara is a new age practitioner in the UK. I approached Cara to get an insight into transcendent and immanent belief systems. I was curious to know how she thought economics tied in with her beliefs. I began by asking Cara to describe what nature meant to her and she said:

Nature to me is all living things. So nature is all around us. It’s like a life force, like an energy that’s around us. Like plants, people, the land. Yes… Nature is all around us… I think we, all of us as humans if we put, like, good energy out there that we get good energy back.

What Cara describes might be thought of as an immanent philosophy. The term immanence comes from the Latin immanere meaning ‘to dwell in’. An immanent belief, therefore, means that spiritual reality is found in the material world. There is nothing above our grounded and lived experience of this world. This is in opposition to transcendence. Wherein, there is a higher reality or power outside of our natural life. An immanent philosophy introduces the idea that what we have on this earth, in other words, our natural resources are not only spiritual, but their destruction is our destruction. This is because we too are part of this immanent nature. As Cara elaborated:

If you put negative energy out there negative energy will come back. To our sun, to the planet, to the earth.

In some respects, Cara’s philosophy is mirrored in modern discussions of environmental health and justice. Entanglement has become a keyword to describe the delicate and entwined nature of humans and their environment. Here, the emergence of disease has been traced to environmental factors.

In Lock’s The Alzheimer’s Conundrum, she traces how experiences of alzheimers can be linked to an entanglement with the environment. People’s ability to live healthy lifestyles is affected by their engagement with the environment. Such as access to public spaces, clean air, water and nutrition. In essence, the capacity to engage with nature is a matter of environmental health justice. It asks who has access to these resources and who does not?

On a larger scale, we see the link between environmental degradation and increased vulnerability of human and non-human communities has been well documented. Cara exemplifies this as she elucidates:

The earth is fighting (with) the corona virus. I think the earth is fighting back. I think that’s why this corona virus is here. The earth is fighting back because it’s not happy with the way we’re treating the earth. A virus is another form of energy. It is more like a… negative energy. And it’s spreading. But I think that’s how the earth is communicating to us.

While there has been much speculation about the origins of the corona virus, other research has provided more concrete examples of environmental-related health issues. For instance, Nading’s Mosquito Trails documents how the dengue fever epidemic in Nicaragua was felt and localised through both human and non-human bodies. He asserts these kinds of entanglements have both spatial and temporal dimensions.

The risks associated with environmental disruptions have historically been unequal. The Brandt report, one of the most comprehensive analyses on global development issues, took pains to highlight these disparities. This was reinforced by Professor Maurie Cohen (New Jersey Institute of technology) who professed that there is a “broad coalition of affluent countries… loath to include any substantive treatment of the environmental implications of consumption.” The effects of degradation are instead found in developing countries, which suffer from the effects of unsustainable consumption practices in the west.

This begs the question of why risk is so unevenly distributed? And who is responsible for regulating risk? According to political scientist Robyn Eckersley’s book The Green State, the state has the greatest capacity to regulate consumers. They have the ability to reallocate resources and in this sense, redistribute risk. In democratic nations, the state is supposedly the most legitimate power for implementing change. Yet as Cara expresses:

I don’t think the government cares about the people. I just think the government cares more about making money. I think… they have the power to solve the problem, but It seems like they’re not doing either enough or they’re not doing what they are supposed to be doing to help… I think the governments also have their own agenda. I just think they just want money out of us… the taxes for example. The taxes, I think, are quite high. They take quite a bit of taxes from us, but then we don’t see what they actually do with the taxes to actually help to improve the environment. Or to help improve public services.

The UK government, among others, has come under increasing criticism for its handling of state welfare. Eckersley has argued that the highly centralised and hierarchical structure of the state is at odds with a participatory democracy. As Cara emphasises:

I think the people in government don’t really understand because they’re on a different level… You see them on TV, they’re talking to people on the street and stuff, but I don’t think they really understand what people are really going through. Because they’re not, they’re not… actually living what they’ve been (seeing) because a lot of the people that are in government are from high privileged families… I think they don’t seem to understand what people are going through in the real world.

Indeed, how much power do individuals have at the state level? Moreover, how well is the public really represented? Neoliberal societies emphasise a decentralisation of power. Particularly, in environmental policy where there has been a move to individual accountability and localised community-based conservation efforts. Whilst there are no doubt benefits to this approach, such as more public engagement and awareness, there are also drawbacks. Mainly, the abdication of governmental responsibility. This leaves a vacuum of power that has been monopolised by the market.

Expressions of environmental concerns are now expressed in market terms. In an investigation of the organic food movement, anthropologist Ryan T. Adams highlighted the way a community in Brooklyn expressed their environmental values through their consumer choices. By advocating for organic labels, these Brooklynites attempted to employ democratic consumerism. The idea is that if the market holds power over the production and distribution of resources, then the way we engage with it is a way to exert democratic power. In the book Free to Choose, economists Milton and Rose Freidman write:

When you vote daily in the supermarket, you get precisely what you voted for, and so does everyone else.

In other words, to some extent individuals can control the market through the choices they make. The market responds to consumer demand and thus we see the growth of green movements. For instance, I asked Cara what she thought the solution was to her perception of the government’s negligence and she answered:

I think we should have better technology and more environmentally friendly products.
(We should) have different alternatives in the shops… that’s not plastic… That’s what I think should be done and then they (can) build electric cars but that will take years to implement and then it’s just gonna take time.

If consumers can manipulate the market in this way, there may be hope yet. However, how ought consumers make their decisions? There are many factors to consider. After all, environmental outcomes do not always benefit all people equally. Anthropologist Holmes Rolston has pointed out that environmental preservation can have negative effects on the economics of poor communities. Not everyone is able to access green consumerism. For instance, there may be barriers, in terms of resources, knowledge and technical means.

Consumption behaviour has also been linked to practices of identity construction and symbolic communication. People may fear that such choices have negative social implications. Joint research at the University of Manchester and Lancaster University (Shove and Warde) has dissected the reasons why people continue to participate in damaging behaviour despite mounting evidence of environmental consequences. For example, in Simulation and Simulacra, Baudrillard posits a scenario where society has become removed from the reality of our bodies and environment. We enact our lives and express beliefs entirely through imagery and symbolism. Our buying habits now define our identities.

Is this truly an immanent philosophy? The meaning and value of nature doesn’t seem to appear in its raw inherent form but instead acts as a symbol of what it can produce. We see this in how the markets and states value the environment. Natural resources are broken down into their equitable value. For instance, many governments use ecosystem service (ES) based frameworks. ES contains the idea that ecosystems can be valued based on their benefit to human welfare. It is important to note that ES uses nonmarket valuation. It asks questions about the extent to which we can apply monetary value to our ecosystems. It instead bases value on other factors, such as enjoyment, health and spirituality. The idea of equitable value also concerns the fair distribution of these resources.

However, the problem with ES as a policy practice, is that it must integrate with market terms. Let us say we have a plot of land designated for public recreation. The cost of maintenance, management and commercialisation must also be provided for. If the ultimate value of conserving the land outweighs the benefit of public enjoyment, it is unlikely that the state will invest in such a project. Another concerning feature of ES is that if we are taking into account factors other than money, we must account for a large range of values. Some of which may be in contradiction to each other. As Cara puts it:

The problem of humans is that we need to work together. If we all work together then we could make the earth a much better place, but we’ve got the government. It’s got it’s own agenda of the money and stuff… Everyone’s got their own agenda. If we work together and focus on making this planet a better place then it’s possible (for the earth to recover). But it’s not going to (happen) because human beings, all of us are different. We’re all working our own agendas and stuff. So it’s gonna be difficult.

One of the fundamental conflicts in human belief is whether something has value for its own sake, or whether it has value because of the symbol it represents. In an immanent philosophy, meaning is found in nature. In a transcendent philosophy, meaning is found in a higher power. So where exactly is meaning located?

In an immanent philosophy, justice is collaborative. We have to locate our beliefs not only in relation to each other, but also in parallel to the myriad of other creatures on our planet. In a true democratic earth, all actors, non-human or non-biotic, have equal entitlement to justice. Power is dispersed across the ecosystem, through developed and developing societies. Yet how would this work in practice?

If only the material world exists, where can we find a transcendence that supersedes ‘what is good for us’ as humans? If we had the moral and ethical capacity to enact such a standard, would it not have been achieved by now? It requires power not just over ourselves, but over the entire earth. One of the problems with the idea of democratic consumption is that it does not account for the power, structure and scale of market forces. Systems of production and networks of distribution on the market are often concealed from the consumers. By individually asserting one’s choice in the private domain, we can be left unable to catch up with the ever-changing market dynamics. Without greater state powers, it will be difficult for individuals to use their choice to regulate environmental degradation in a meaningful way. Policy and legislation of populations are enforced by the state. Without which, the barriers or power, influence and status allow the market to resist regulation.

According to philosopher Joseph P. Laurence, there is even more to lose from an immanent perspective. He asserts that a belief in immanence is irrational because it robs us of all the cognitive intuition and reflections of more depth than there is. Symbolic systems of value and meaning are eliminated under this provision. Ecopsychological studies have likewise found that individuals with ‘transcendental’ worldviews are more likely to be motivated to help the environment based on their higher values and beliefs, as opposed to external factors, such as “guilt, shame, reward attainment and punishment avoidance” (Yasué, Kirkpatrick, & Davison, 2020).

Therefore, we must question what would an economics of transcendence look like? In theory, it might look very similar to ES. An emphasis is placed on wellbeing, public health, spirituality and justice. These factors will all be taken into consideration when valuing nature. However, this leaves us with problems we have already encountered. How is value assigned? Does one person’s agenda override another? How is this applied in a market system?

Perhaps the root of the problem lies in our perception of nature as a finished product. The transcendent philosophy overshadows the realities of production and consumption. Symbolism dominates the narrative, leaving very little for an empirical basis of reality. This is in contrast to immanence which pushes forward the raw materialism of the world as intrinsically valuable. So, is there a middle ground? Can these two philosophies be synthesised for a more ecologically sound market system?

(When) people couldn’t go out, they couldn’t use their cars and stuff… More animals were coming out… The earth was a lot more cleaner without the pollution of the cars and stuff. And so the animals were were happier. The earth was a lot happier. I don’t know if anyone noticed it but I noticed that. Did you notice it?

Cara highlights a key point that is present in both a transcendent and immanent philosophy. The idea of noticing and interpreting change. We have little time to observe the earth in its raw form. Yet, when we do, there is an overwhelming sense of meaning that we derive from it. Our symbolic constructions of nature have the ability to reach the heart of human emotions and consciousness. Perhaps transcending any individual or societal belief.

This meaning is situated both at once in our embodied presence of earth and the power of greater meaning tying us together: the indomitable presence of the earth. One system made of many systems. One meaning, entangled with many individual meanings.

An economic system of nature must encompass all these aspects. No one solution can resolve all our problems. There must be individual action and there must be state actions. The question is how to bring policy to the local level?

I want to finish by presenting an idea of how to make this a reality. Cara suggested that we might design a governmental application where the public can vote on policies directly. Rather than running policy through representatives, the government outlines arguments for substantive policy and the public can read the documentation to draw their own conclusion. Then we vote accordingly.

A social voting application could be implemented at a local level. Local communities could use the app to debate on environmental projects, natural resources valuation, management of funds and public engagement.

Government involvement is then regulated by individual citizens as opposed to the market. Currently, the UK is experimenting with different agricultural management styles through their 25-year Environment Plan. It sets out strategies to move communities and businesses towards sustainable practices. It outlines one of the goals as “increasing action to improve the environment from all sectors of society.” Moreover, it talks about the introduction of a number of regulatory limitations of resource use such as reducing land-based emissions and eliminating plastic waste. However, as we have seen in the past, the success of these policies has been limited. An app that shares with people allocation of resources and presents a clear argument for environmental goals, will surely engender more trust and engagement with governmental policies. Furthermore, It provides the clearest route to democratic freedom.

Of course, this idea is in the early stages of development. Nevertheless, it gives an idea for an alternative governance technology.

A means for a truly transcendent economics of nature.

(Thanks to Cara for participating in this discussion.)



Source Credit: This article originally appeared on Wall Street International by . Read the original article -