A few years back, I was working on a writing and interview project for a national nonprofit in which I spent time with professionals who focused on sustainability. I wasn’t hanging out with Julia “Butterfly” Hill or the descendants of Edward Abbey. These were people who were firmly part of the professional class and operating inside the system to varying degrees. Not everyone’s a radical and I found many of my interview subjects to be fascinating individuals who had accomplished worthwhile things.
However, one issue threw me for a minor loop. During a discussion with a guy who was involved in the financial end of foundation work on climate change and ecosystems, he termed the natural processes occurring in ecosystems as “ecosystem services” that need to be quantified monetarily. “That’s weird”, I thought, so I probed and he enthusiastically explained how financializing the functioning of ecosystems would help the foundation he worked for create “deals” to structure the ways in which they would use their resources to help preserve or restore ecosystems in various parts of the world.
His explanation made a certain amount of sense at the time, but the framing of natural processes to fit within a concept of markets and payments troubled me. On a planet undergoing constant (albeit often barely perceptible) evolutionary change, as well as continual stress due to the massive impact of capitalist economic models enacted on its ‘body’, I wondered how helpful it was to frame the millions-of-years-old interdependently balanced functioning of ecosystems as, essentially, an enterprise. Enterprises within capitalism seek growth at all costs. Ecosystems and the atmosphere don’t conform to or care about these constructs, so what was this financialization effort really all about?
In the years since I conducted that interview, I’ve continued to look askance at the idea that we can avoid catastrophic ecosystem collapse by conceptualizing earth’s materials, relationships and processes as nothing more than a new set of markets within capitalism.
With this uncomfortable feeling remaining near the surface of my consciousness, earlier this year I discovered the investigative journalism of Cory Morningstar (an admittedly late discovery, since she’s been writing for 10 years or more), who does in-depth research into the connections between nonprofits, startups, marketing, movement building, and the long-range planning of politicians and the capitalist class. Her series, the Manufacturing of Greta Thunberg, has helped me get a lot more concrete about the disquiet I experienced as I interviewed sustainability professionals.
With the backdrop this week of the AOC-allied climate group ‘The Sunrise Movement’ praising presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren (who has done next to nothing for the climate during her time as Senator) for environmental plans she discussed on a recent televised town hall, I thought it would be helpful to continue our podcast reading series—recently given the title “The Words of Others”—with the first section of Morningstar’s 6-part investigation into media celebrity Greta Thunberg and the climate organizations to which she’s connected.
Morningstar’s work (all six pieces have also been compiled in book form) may prove instructive as those of us who are concerned about our survival on this planet try to focus on what activity can genuinely make a positive difference for the climate, the atmosphere and the health of our ecosystems.
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