The financialization of natural resources is the process of replacing environmental regulation with markets. In order to bring nature under the control of markets, the planet’s natural resources need to be made into commodities that can be bought or sold for a profit. It is a means of transferring the stewardship of our common resources to private business interests. The financialization of nature is not about protecting the environment, rather it is about creating ways for the financial sector to continue to earn high profits. Although the sector has begun to rebound from the financial crisis, it is still below its pre-crisis levels of profit. By pushing into new areas, promoting the creation of new commodities, and exploiting the real threat of climate change for their own ends, financial companies and actors are placing the whole world at the risk of precarity.
A systemic increase in financial speculation on commodities mainly driven by deregulation of derivative markets, increasing involvement of investment banks, hedge funds and other institutional investor in commodity speculation and the emergence of new instruments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds. Financial deregulation over the last one decade has for the first time transformed commodities into financial assets. what we might call ‘financialization’, is thus penetrating all commodity markets and their functioning. Contrary to common sense and what civil society assumes, financial markets are going deeper and deeper into the real economy as a response to the financial crisis, so that speculative capital is structurally being intertwined with productive capital – in this case commodities and natural resources.
Marine ecology as a natural resource isn’t immune to commodification, and an array of financial agents are making it their indispensable destination, thrashing out new types of alliances converging around specific ideas about how maritime and coastal resources should be organized, and to whose benefit, under which terms and to what end? The commodification of marine ecology is what is referred to as Blue Economy, which is converging on the necessity of implementing policies across scales that are conducive to, what in the corridors of those promulgating it, a win-win-win situation in pursuit of ‘sustainable development’, entailing pro-poor, conservation-sensitive blue growth. What one cannot fail to notice here is that Blue Economy is close on heels to what Karl Marx called the necessary prerequisite to capitalism, primitive accumulation. If in the days of industrial revolution and at a time when Marx was writing, natural resources like lands were converted into commercial commodities, then today under the rubric of neoliberalism, the attack is on the natural resources in the form of converting them into speculative capital. But as commercial history has undergone a change, so has the notion of accumulation. Today’s accumulation is through the process of dispossession. In the green-grabbing frame, conservation initiatives have become a key force driving primitive accumulation, although, the form that primitive accumulation through conservation takes is very different from that initially described by Marx, as conservation initiatives involve taking nature out of production – as opposed to bringing them in through the initial enclosures described by Marx. Under such unfoldings, even the notional appropriation undergoes an unfolding, in that, it implies the transfer of ownership, use rights and control over resources that were once publicly or privately owned – or not even the subject of ownership – from the poor (or everyone including the poor) in to the hands of the powerful.
Moreover, for David Harvey, states under neoliberalism become increasingly oriented toward attracting foreign direct investment, i.e. specifically actors with the capital to invest whereas all others are overlooked and/or lose out. Central in all of these dimensions is the assumption in market-based neoliberal conservation that “once property rights are established and transaction costs are minimized, voluntary trade in environmental goods and bads will produce optimal, least-cost outcomes with little or no need for state involvement.”. This implies that win-win- win outcomes with benefits on all fronts spanning corporate investors, the local communities, biodiversity, national economies etc., are possible if only the right technocratic policies are put in place. By extension this also means side-stepping intrinsically political questions with reference to effective management through economic rationality informed by cutting-edge ecological science, in turn making the transition to the ‘green economy’ conflict-free as long as the “invisible hand of the market is guided by [neutral] scientific expertise”. While marine and coastal resources may have been largely overlooked in the discussions on green grabbing and neoliberal conservation, a robust, but small, critical literature has been devoted to looking specifically into the political economy of fisheries systems. Focusing on one sector in the outlined ‘blue economy’, this literature uncovers “how capitalist relations and dynamics (in their diverse and varying forms) shape and/or constitute fisheries systems.”
The question then is, how far viable or sustainable are these financial interventions? Financialization produces effects which can create long-term trends (such as those on functional income distribution) but can also change across different periods of economic growth, slowdown and recession. Interpreting the implications of financialization for sustainability, therefore, requires a methodological diverse and empirical dual-track approach which combines different methods of investigations. Even times of prosperity, despite their fragile and vulnerable nature, can endure for several years before collapsing due to high levels of indebtedness, which in turn amplify the real effects of a financial crisis and hinder the economic growth. Things begin to get a bit more complicated when financialization interferes with environment and natural resources, for then the losses are not just merely on a financial platform alone. Financialization has played a significant role in the recent price shocks in food and energy markets, while the wave of speculative investment in natural resources has and is likely to produce perverse environmental and social impact. Moreover, the so-called financialization of environmental conservation tends to enhance the financial value of environmental resources but it is selective: not all stakeholders have the same opportunities and not all uses and values of natural resources and services are accounted for. This mechanism brings new risks and challenges for environmental services and their users that are excluded by official systems of natural capital monetization and accounting. This is exactly the precarity one is staring at when dealing with Blue Economy.