By Mr. Raghav Srivastava*

For some time now, the meaning and value of strategies and tools used in solving the ‘problem’ of endangerment of biodiversity and natural processes, have been occupying the recesses of my mind. As anyone who seeks any kind of purpose will know, the methodologies employed to achieve that purpose will naturally arouse curiosity at some point. The purpose to which I am currently avowed is environmental conservation – resolving the problem of environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. Environmental conservation entails seeking solutions to the growing threats faced by our natural environment, which are nearly completely anthropogenic in their origin. The efforts of forming and applying strategies to solve this (or any) problem are necessarily circumscribed and defined, by the definition of the problem itself. The much-parroted failures of big conservation organizations (or really, anyone at all) to make any kind of substantial progress towards conservation goals on a scale commensurate to the scale of environmental problems, begged to my mind, then, a scrutiny of the definition of the ‘conservation problem’.

Definitions were, to me, a fair point to begin an inquiry into the failure of mankind as a whole towards conservation, not least because of my training as a lawyer and therefore, a partiality towards the opinion that definitions are necessarily purposive and contextual. The way in which ‘Gram Sabhas’ are defined in Indian law, for example, differs from the Indian Constitution[i], to the The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006,[ii] to the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Rules, 2018[iii] depending on the real purposes sought to be achieved by each of these statutes, as well as their political and socio-economic contexts. As a corollary to this, it seems logical to infer that a purposive definition can only be used to achieve as much as its purpose and context permit – and no more. This, to my mind, is where the principal lacuna in the definition of the conservation problem lies. It lies in that the ‘problem’ of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss is framed incompletely (rather than incorrectly). It is, in my opinion, incomplete because the neo-liberal formulation of the conservation problem (the formulation that is privileged and dominant in the global conservation discourse) does not contain within it any averments to the larger structural and systemic contradictions which require to be addressed, or at least taken cognizance of, if the problem is to be tackled with any kind of sincerity. It is really quite curious, but then on a closer study it is not.

The market economies (of varying degrees of freedom, but I shall take the liberty of subsuming all of these within this catch-all phrase, for convenience and with little risk of oversimplification) of today pay very innocuous tributes to the capitalist philosophies on which they built their ‘wealth’. There are, however, two essential features of all modern markets which are common across the lot that, to my mind, are essentially contradictory to, and incompatible with, the purpose of environmental conservation. These values are the centrality of capital, and infinite growth. But before I get into a discussion on these, it is important to also know the limitations and contradictions inherent in some fundamental premises of free market dynamics.

The working of free markets is conventionally explained through microeconomic theory, which explains the mechanisms of demand, supply and price discovery at the level of the individual. The attainment of market equilibria, and the consequential regulation of supply and demand are premised on certain assumptions – not least of which is the assumption that all individuals (whether consumers or producers) are at identical positions relative to each other, and that the decisions of one do not affect the choices or decisions of another. Through this model, the regulation of supply in situations of scarcity (such as for natural resources) as well as the regulation of prices at levels which are affordable, appear to be perfectly explicable.

What this model fails to account for is that all persons in a market are seldom (if ever) at equal positions relative to each other – there are necessarily inequalities which pre-exist in any community, whether they be of caste, class, or of geographical or informational access. In such situations, free markets and the ‘invisible hand’ do not work in the utopian way that is popularly peddled, i.e. allocate resources in ways that are fair or just. Instead, they serve to reinforce the existing inequalities, since the market processes (such as that of price discovery) are at the mercy of those who wield social and economic power (the two, more often than not, occur together – and almost always in conjunction with political power as well). The institutions and processes involving resource allocation and capital access – or the ‘rules of the game’ – are dictated to a large extent by the wielders of power. They are, as a result, designed to structurally reinforce and retain socio-economic and political power where it historically resides. The result, as is amply visible today, is an ever-widening chasm[iv] between persons in the same economy. The ‘freedom’ of free markets, therefore, is confined to textbooks and theoretical models only – and one can only begin to reconcile the departure of free markets in practice, from microeconomic theory, by presuming that ‘optimal’ and ‘efficient’ allocations mean something other than fair or just ones.

Moving on from the assumptions inherent to the economic theory of markets, to the first major contradiction – the centrality of capital. Everything in our natural world has an intrinsic value, an innate functionality in its larger ecosystem, which is unique to each element. The endless, momentous feedback loop of ‘exchange-value’ – where values of non-economic things are represented in monetary terms, requiring with each loop that succeeding things adhere to the same system (so as to be reducible to a balance sheet, for our convenience) – has almost erased the ‘use-value’ from our sphere of perception and consideration. This applies not only to our natural world, but to ‘abstractions’ as well, which otherwise have no utility in the free market economy – love, compassion, justice. These are all facing the threat of extinction through the ‘devalorisation’ which has been the inevitable consequence of our economic history – where money has far exceeded its brief as a medium of exchange, to the very thing that is being exchanged.

The other major contradiction between free markets in theory and practice is the idea that producers need to constantly grow in order to achieve better outcomes for themselves and the market, and consumption needs to grow in order to fuel this production – growth which has no end and which raises the standards of living; apparently towards some utopian future which was, at best, vaguely described in terms of economic equality at one point but is now commonly accepted as hogwash.[v] Largely because it externalizes (i.e. systemically ignores) the finiteness and fragility of the natural resource base upon which this growth is based.

The relevance of this discussion may very well be questioned on the ground that no market is truly ‘free’ today – whether due to intrinsic inequalities, regulations or some other constraints – and discussing their theoretical failings is therefore redundant. Nevertheless, I believe it is imperative to understand these contradictions because the central tenets of free market philosophy are justified on the basis that they will achieve better outcomes for everyone within it – on the basis of the above theory. Solutions to the problems which are evidencing the failure of this capital-chasing system are being sought within the same system (such as the new fashion of assigning economic valuations to natural processes), which will only provide symptomatic relief[vi] at best. That environmental destruction and social inequalities have been the only constant gifts of the invisible hand, are sought to be justified by neo-liberal apologists as a function of the leakages and imperfect approaches in enforcing and implementing free market philosophies. The evidence is all around us– with increasing numbers all over of denuded biodiversity, hungry, homeless, displaced. This was, in fact, foretold by Mr. Marx many, many years ago.[vii]


About the Author

*Mr. Raghav Srivastava is an environmental lawyer who did his graduation from NLSIU, Bengaluru (Batch of 2013) and is currently a Master of Environmental Management Candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He has been working in biodiversity conservation and environmental justice since 2015, with organisations like UNDP, Dakshin Foundation, WWF-India. He was also recently a part of a survey of high altitude lakes for plastic presence, in Spiti and Ladakh as part of a National Geographic Explorers team in August 2019.


[i] Constitution of India 1950, art. 243(b).

[ii] The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, s 2(g).

[iii] Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Rules 2018, r 2(m).

[iv] ‘ Improving job quality and reducing gender gaps are essential to tackling growing inequality’ (OECD, 21 May 2015) <http://www.oecd.org/newsroom/reducing-gender-gaps-and-poor-job-quality-essential-to-tackle-growing-inequality.htm&gt; accessed 31 May 2020.

[v] George Monbiot, ‘Finally, a breakthrough alternative to growth economics – the doughnut’ The Guardian (London, 12 April 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/12/doughnut-growth-economics-book-economic-model&gt; accessed 31 May 2020.

[vi] Richard Conniff, ‘What’s Wrong with Putting a Price on Nature?’ (YaleEnvironment360, 18 October 2012 <https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecosystem_services_whats_wrong_with_putting_a_price_on_nature&gt; accessed 31 May 2020.

[vii] John Bellamy Foster, ‘Capitalism and Ecology: The Nature of the Contradiction’ (Monthly Review, 01 September 2002) <https://monthlyreview.org/2002/09/01/capitalism-and-ecology/&gt; accessed 31 May 2020.

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