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3. What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology of the ‘green economy’

Sian Sullivan (April 2016)

Abstract. Contemporary market-based ‘green economy’ approaches to environmental degradation emphasise exchanges whereby quantified units of environmental harm are traded or ‘offset’ for compensating units of environmental health, as well as encouraging a view that economic growth can be ‘greened’ through ‘decoupling’ economic value from material ecological realities. Such methods tend to frame biophysical natures in terms of aggregates, such as an ‘aggregate natural capital rule’ and ‘net zero carbon’. Natures-beyond-the-human are thereby both understood and enacted as calculable, exchangeable, substitutable and commensurable between different spatial and temporal sites making up an ‘aggregate’ or ‘net’ value. This paper uses a comparative cross-cultural engagement to problematise ontological assumptions regarding the nature of nature that underscore the rationality of such aggregating and offsetting ‘solutions’. Drawing on literatures from environmental anthropology and environmental ethics, combined with ethnographic material from long-term field research in north-west Namibia, the paper considers elements of alternative cultural ontologies and the ways these may give rise to a different array of practices with value for conceiving and generating ‘sustainability’. It retains a critical political ecology perspective in understanding the ways that power structures the ontologies that become both privileged and occluded in neoliberal strategies for green economy governance.


Key words. ontology; green economy; offsetting; decoupling; sustainability; value; natures-beyond-the-human; neoliberalism; political ecology

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