The French Alps: Biodiversity Offsetting and the Marketisation of Nature

On a trip to the French Alps over the summer, I was struck by the “natural” beauty of the landscape. Here, I put the term natural in quotation marks as it is questionable as to what extent this landscape is still natural. The sides of the mountains are deforested for ski slopes, livestock graze the surrounding hillsides and towns fill the valleys – all this, of course, is forgetting the impact that climate change has on the landscape. Indeed, it was as early as the 1920s that Carl Sauer wrote of the impact of humans on the landscape. Visiting in the summer demonstrated the extent of this human impact – it is far easier to see deforestation and the results of climate change in summer than winter – as I witnessed a small cirque glacier melt. 

In any case, as the photograph above demonstrates, this landscape is still breathtaking. In its own right, it is unlike any other landscape in the world; its natural beauty is unique. This is the fundamental argument of this article – that natural landscapes and environments are not convertible as biodiversity offsetting would have you believe. By ‘natural’, I am referring to non-human nature: the plants and animals of Earth, and the environments which they call home. What is key in this definition is the centrality of their (animals and plants’) environments; biodiversity of all types, are unique and located, existing only in certain geographical regions. 

It is this uniqueness of flora and fauna that is neglected in the logic of biodiversity offsetting. As defined by Apostolopoulou and Adams (2019), biodiversity offsetting programmes are those that aim to give biodiversity benefits to compensate for losses. The paradigm of neoliberal policies attempting to solve the environmental contradictions of capitalism has, perhaps, only enhanced existing contractions; by framing conservation as development-led, development becomes a prerequisite for conservation. Furthermore, biodiversity offsetting changes the flora and fauna of the world into a currency – convertible in both space and time – relying on biodiversity in different places and times having the same value. This is a clear marketisation of nature: in converting nature to a currency, it is also converted into a product of the market. 

The marketisation of biodiversity removes the intrinsic value of nature: nature in one place is not equal to nature in another place. In contrast to economic approaches of valuing nature, the geographical approach – revealed to me in my exploration of the Alps – recognises that nature cannot be transferred, as it is unique. The biodiversity of the Alps cannot be transferred elsewhere: it has an intrinsic value, separate from any economic value it’s been assigned. As development continues in the region, centring around the expansion of the tourist industry, biodiversity offsetting is likely to be used as a justification for further development of the Alps. However, issues with biodiversity offsetting are not just in the Alps, these programmes occur wherever human development meets nature. Biodiversity offsetting reveals a clear misunderstanding of the intrinsic value of nature; its unique value cannot easily be assigned to another place to satisfy human need, both in the case of the beauty of the Alps and on a global scale. This is not to say that the value of nature is equal to its beauty – the value of the Alps is given neither by its beauty nor by its value to humans – rather it was the beauty of the Alps that highlighted to me the fundamental misunderstanding at the core of biodiversity offsetting valuations.

This lack of understanding present in biodiversity offsetting, I believe, comes from an economistic understanding of the world. In economics, so long as the value is equal, the exchange of biodiversity – fundamentally the life of flora and fauna – between locations and times is acceptable. However, a geographic understanding of the world, space and spatiotemporal variation is far more suited in this situation; as demonstrated, biodiversity cannot be converted to a currency, the approach used by geographical imaginaries proves this. Geography is far better suited to understand spatial variations. Biodiversity cannot be a currency, it must be understood as localised and inconvertible. Perhaps this can be used as a wider point of difference between the two disciplines: economics is dedicated to finding clean, perfect mathematical models, whilst geographers are not afraid to get their hands dirty with reality (Aalbers, 2009). 

By Joshua Paul

References Apostolopoulou, E. & Adams, B., 2019. Cutting nature to fit: Urbanisation, neoliberalism and biodiversity offsetting in England. Geoforum, 98, pp.214-225. 

Aalbers, M., 2009. The Sociology and Geography of Mortgage Markets: Reflections on the Financial Crisis. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(2), pp.281-290. 


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