Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Market: Virtualism, Disavowal, and Public Secrecy in Neoliberal Environmental Conservation

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Market: Virtualism, Disavowal, and Public Secrecy in Neoliberal Environmental Conservation

Article excerpt


"Truly, it is easier ... to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism."

Michael Taussig (1998, page 251)

This paper explores the implications of the quotation above [in which Taussig paraphrases Jameson (1994)] with respect to contemporary trends in environmental governance. As the full scale of the ecological problems confronting us has become increasingly apparent, efforts to address them have become increasingly focused on engagement with capitalist markets--a trend alternately termed 'market environmentalism', 'green capitalism', 'green neoliberalism', and 'neoliberal conservation'. Yet, for many critics, it is precisely capitalist markets that are in no small part responsible for the environmental problems they are now called upon to solve (see Fletcher, 2012a). Buscher (2012, page 29) thus describes neoliberal conservation as "the paradoxical idea that capitalist markets are the answer to their own ecological contradictions". In short, as Taussig suggests, while the ecological crisis threatening the future of life on Earth is becoming increasingly acknowledged within mainstream global society, at the same time it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine addressing this crisis in other than capitalist terms (see also Swyngedouw, 2011). Accounting for this paradox is the purpose of this analysis.

It does so by addressing two interrelated questions. First: why is there so often a substantial gap between vision and execution in neoliberal forms of environmental conservation? As I will show, many ostensibly market-based mechanisms include in their actual implementation tools and strategies largely antithetical to foundational neoliberal principles. In addition, irrespective of their methods, such mechanisms often fail to achieve intended results. While these dynamics have been noted by other research with respect to specific contexts and strategies, I suggest that they actually constitute a common pattern in neoliberal conservation. I contend that this situation results in part from the particular virtualistic (Carrier and Miller, 1998; Carrier and West, 2009) vision underlying market mechanisms, insofar as they seek to transform the world to conform to a model that is assumed to already exist. This vision, I suggest, contains fundamental errors while offering such impossible criteria for fulfillment that reconciling theory and practice would in fact be quite difficult.

If this is so, however, it raises a second key question: why is this gap between vision and execution so rarely acknowledged within neoliberal discourse itself? I demonstrate that, despite a common failure to execute neoliberal conservation strategies as envisioned, this reality is seldom directly attributed to the fundamental nature of market mechanisms themselves. Rather, it seems, neoliberal analysts tend to engage in a sort of 'fetishistic disavowal' (Zizek, 1989; 2008)--a simultaneous admission and denial--often superficially acknowledging yet ultimately dismissing for the most part potential critiques concerning the presence of essential contradictions in the performance of neoliberal mechanisms. It is this paradoxical dynamic to which the paper's title refers, playing off the subtitle of the classic film Dr Strangelove.

This in turn suggests that awareness of these contradictions assumes the form of a "public secret" (Taussig, 1998; 1999), something generally known yet rarely openly voiced. Given this dynamic, critiques of neoliberal environmental measures may face substantial obstacles, for, as Taussig (1999) observes, efforts to expose public secrets often achieve the opposite effect of obfuscating them further. To pursue effective critique, then, may require creative new strategies able to confront the public secrecy dynamic, a prospect I explore in the conclusion.

In developing this analysis, I build on a growing body of research addressing neoliberalization within natural resource management generally (see, eg, Castree, 2008; 2010; Heynen et al, 2007) and conservation specifically (eg, Brockington and Duffy, 2010; Brockington et al, 2008; Buscher et al, 2012; Fletcher, 2010; Sullivan, 2006) [but see Buscher et al (2012) for insightful discussion of important similarities and differences between these interrelated literatures]. …

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