Exposing Environmental Big Lies
This is chapter 4 of my book, A Natural Language, which exposes the environmental narrative as propaganda and puts bottom-up solutions in front of the actual problem.
Until carbon sequestration technologies and methods mature, Drax’s ambitions solely depend on the UK’s “effective negative emissions policy and investment framework.” This is code for green finance. The latter is an umbrella term for the bean counting concepts that technocrats have come up with in their efforts to solve our environmental crises from the top down. The framework that they have come up with attributes an ecological footprint to economic actors such as producers and consumers. The most prominent part of this footprint is the carbon signature, which basically represents your emissions tied to using energy, cement, and foods like meat. Actors must then strive to minimize this footprint, and ideally sport net zero carbon emissions to avert ecosystem collapse and runaway climate change. Actors would get to sweep some emissions out of sight using off-balance-sheet accounting gimmicks, such as burning biomass to produce zero emission energy, or Rube Goldberg machines like carbon capture and storage or green tech. When carbon emissions still remain, this saintly net zero status requires buying carbon offsets.
These carbon offsets are far more sophisticated than mere indulgences that you can buy and sell from applicable vendors. They are full blown financial securities that trade on exchanges operated by financiers. What you can do with stocks or bonds, you can also do with carbon offsets. You can speculate on them, securitize them as investment products, and even bundle them to create green products like net zero flights. These securities are the visible part of a new financial Eldorado that technocrats have been working on for decades: nature. This new asset class puts carbon sequestration and nature-based services like clean air or clean water in the same category as property, intellectual property, or money: a mental prison with symbolic imperatives that cult organizers can credit, believers must debit, and zealots then police with little patience for wrong-thinking heretics or unshackled heathens.
It falls on us, as these carbon offsets make their way into our lives, to ponder over the fact that human societies tend to organize themselves and their food systems alike. What, for instance, might AI-operated multistory pig farms in China be telling us about our looming future? Well intended imperatives to trust the science and do the right thing, both of which appear to be trademarks for climate and medical science, could well be heralding a future of inverted totalitarianism. Perhaps we will shackle ourselves with digital identifiers (a Green Pass?) that enable AI-enforced compliance schemes to take over our lives. Perhaps we will then elect to carbon ration ourselves. Perhaps this will lead us to live in communal facilities, sleep in pods, and conduct our daily lives in virtual reality. Perhaps our central bank issued digital wallets will credit us for riding a bike. Perhaps it will also lower our social credit score for eating meat instead of bugs grown in our own sewage. Perhaps it will block our finances because we’ve strayed too far away from home, too, in an echo of how the French were not able to go far from home during the Covid-19 lockdowns. A green future could be very dystopian indeed.
On top of being a path towards a green new world, carbon offsets act as a regressive tax. Corporations that sell net zero products and services mostly just pass on the costs to customers, so comparing carbon offsets to a consumption tax is fair. The financiers who pocket commissions on these transactions give it a medieval twist, in that they are reminiscent of the privatized tax collectors from the past. As to the beneficiaries, some emphasize sequestering carbon, like clean oil, tree planting, or rewilding efforts. These all own enough land to justify dealing with the overhead. Other beneficiaries emphasize protecting sequestered carbon, as with conservancy projects. So put together, net zero consumers are going to be guilt tripped into paying a regressive tax to seek forgiveness for living and consuming, and the tax will go to mining interests, like oil giants, or large land holding interests, like the British Royals (which also collect rent from offshore wind farm operators) or the conservancies that run their hunting reserves. Even serfdom in Feudal Tibet was less humiliating than this green tithe.
Carbon offsets are often commercial subsidies, at that. Tree planting projects are usually tree plantations, for instance. Commercial tree plantation projects are well understood and their progress is easy to track, so they get far more funding than more glamorous (if also misguided) rewilding efforts. It is as such typical for these projects to bring in tree planting expertise. That is, tree plantation operators like Suzano, along with their associated environmental ramifications. In practice, tree planting related offsets are all too often subsidizing products like palm oil, rubber, teak timber, and so forth. Loggers that protect trees until they’re mature enough to harvest are not unheard of. This issue is not unique to tree planting projects, either. Regenerative agriculture offsets reward farmers for taking proper care of their own topsoil. Blue carbon offsets fund fisheries development and erosion prevention. Conservancy offsets fund tourism operations. Make no mistake: carbon offset projects can be socially useful projects that deserve your support. They can be commercial projects that may not have needed the subsidies to begin with at the same time.
A lot of offset projects provide dubious benefits, too. Tree planting projects, especially, fail far too often. Growing tree plantations in areas that lack the rainfall to support natural forest cover is an uphill battle if not done right, and they are all too often not done right. Water shortfalls can destroy a tree plantation, as can wildfires and pests. Other types of projects have issues of their own. Protecting a forested area that lacks road or river access, for instance, is pointless because the main predictor of illegal logging is a sane way to move the logs out. Carbon offsets to that end nonetheless get singled out in reports, if only to lament that they command carbon offset prices that compare with those of less vulnerable areas. At minimum such projects aren’t priced right. Other issues include forest clear-cuts in protected areas that fly under the radar, because they are too small to appear on satellite imagery, and areas that get protected at the expense of others that get less media attention. The list could go on.
The most startling part of carbon offset projects, with this said, is whose land (or waters) they take place on. Very distressing amounts of land gets stolen in the name of stopping climate change, protecting endangered species, or otherwise saving the environment or the planet. Sometimes, it is from US corn-belt farmers to build a CO2 pipeline. Other times, it is to grow trees on drylands that nomadic pastoralists depend on in Africa. Yet other times, it is to purportedly protect a lush rainforest. Each time, outside stakeholders work with local authorities to set land (or waters) aside for some greater good. Public lands or waters get repurposed as needed; private landowners get expropriated using eminent domain procedures. It is land theft either way. It is the continuation of colonialism by other means.
Conservancies are the principal protagonists of this new form of imperialism. Following the tradition set by the white supremacists who gave us US national parks, outfits like the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) or the Nature Conservancy create reserves to “protect” nature. In practical terms, this means expropriating and evicting indigenous peoples with the help of local elites and militarized park guards. The stolen lands then become reserves, in a decidedly feudal sense: without the locals to keep large predator numbers in check, park managers need big game hunters like the British Royals to take them out. For the rest, well-off eco-tourists and racist wildlife documentary makers get to enjoy Tarzan-like scenery and wildlife without any dark skinned locals in the frame — except as traditional dancers, guides, chauffeurs, cooks, or servants. The park guards sometimes leave a few huts intact for authenticity when clearing out the locals.
The language of conservancy echoes its white supremacist roots. White settlers are ranchers who explore and hunt game, observes conservancy critic Mordecai Ogada, whereas black locals are herders who encroach and poach bushmeat. The scientific literature oozes of the same vibes: to this day, white biologists continue to “discover” new species that indigenous locals (itself a colonial era term for non-white natives) had known about all along. It is also telling that, whereas conservancies purport to protect wildlife and wilderness, the locals whose land gets stolen seldom even have words for these concepts. The reason is that these terms arise only in authoritarian cultures that need descriptors for nature that is not under their tight control — to be feared, like the large carnivores and herbivores that they have hunted out of existence everywhere they settled. The love of nature and life of non-authoritarian tribal peoples contrasts with the fear of nature and death of the authoritarian settlers who colonize their lands. It is no coincidence, in passing, that replacing Nature with God in conservancy discourse will often produce a church sermon. Many modern environmental outfits have in fact been pioneered by devout christians, white supremacists, and eugenicists.
The behavior of conservancies with indigenous locals echoes this entrenched racism. Tribal peoples’ rights defense outfits like Survival International have been compiling an endless list of witness accounts that document how conservancy park guards harass, threaten, beat, rape, torture, maim, and murder their victims. Buzzfeed, a media outlet, brought the WWF’s guards’ specific behaviors to the attention of a broader public in 2019. A poker-faced WWF honcho explained in a US Senate committee two years later that, because the offending park guards were contractors, the perpetrators had faced little consequences. Public awareness about these abuses is nonetheless growing, and it is becoming ever harder for conservancies to dismiss these reports as a few bad apples among outsourced park guards or as the confabulations of disgruntled locals.
Conservancies have begun communicating about working with locals to puff up their image, but this is specious. Their websites would have you believe that locals suddenly need western experts to help them survive and protect species that they have been coexisting with for tens of thousands of years. The patriarchal setup is transparent in negotiations: indigenous peoples are set up to defend their interests in front of western decision makers like children might in front of a schoolmaster. Decision makers then might enjoy a traditional dance and exotic nightlife, and then go on to decide what to do with others’ lands behind closed doors — as if consultation and consent were the same. When conservancies do work with locals, it is to hire them as staff for tourism-related activities after taking their land away from them. In other words, they turn locals who enjoyed the autonomy that comes with owning land into landless wage slaves. That situation is less than ideal when a pandemic shuts down the world economy.
These patriarchal attitudes extend towards nature, too. Conservationists are effectively expecting us to let them lock her up and disallow us from visiting her except under their tight supervision, in a medieval-like effort to prevent us from soiling the purity of her lineage. Mother-Nature would thereby be some kind of static idol whose fantasized shapes and beauty must be preserved and revered. Vigorous new species are kept at bay in jealous efforts to comfort wilting and limping incumbents. In reality, nature is a dynamic system that continually evolves. Species come and go based on how nature is managed and harvested. The whole idea of conservancy crumbles, in fact, when you remark that humans are natural. However conscious we might be, we remain animals that are part of nature, not above or beneath it. All species manage and harvest nature to some degree, and like other species we manage our environment. The only thing that sets us apart is the extent by which we can manage nature for good or bad.
Incidentally, what happens to nature when it is managed by conservancies is less than stellar. Revolving doors exist between big corporations, governments, philanthropies, and nonprofits. Conservancy donors include all sorts of authoritarian interests who confuse managing nature with enslaving it. They grow plantations and operate prisons for domesticated animals, with a few sacrificial areas for mines and landfills, and a few sports hunting areas with animal stocks a notch above extinction. Wilderness is what these authoritarians call lands still managed by non-authoritarians — with an emphasis on “still.” In a classic case of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, conservancies tend to invite their donors over to help them develop areas under their control after clearing out the original occupants. At times, a tree planting project is needed. At other times, it is logging and infrastructure to extract mineral resources critical for our green tech, all-electric future.
Summary | Next: Green Technology.