Is the environment soluble in the economy?

How is the environment considered by economic discourses and statistics? A collective work examines both the studies of economists and the activities of activist actors or companies who seek to measure the environment or to ignore it.

Save the environment is a collective work, composed of contributions from economists, sociologists, historians and specialists in science, technology and society studies. Its objective is to question the relevance and various ways of carrying out an economic analysis of environmental issues. The coordinators’ desire is to deal with the economics of the environment in its different components, to bring out transversal characteristics and show “the challenges, limits and opportunities of convening the economy in our interactions with nature . » (p.9) The general introduction thus justifies the choice of title at some length. Playing on words, the coordinators’ choice is precisely not to make a choice between environmental economics and ecological economics, between an economic theory approach and case studies. The result, as undoubtedly with any collective work, is an unequal interest in the different contributions depending on the reader’s sensitivity or degree of knowledge of the theme. Because this work deals with environmental economics, an academic discipline which considers the environment with the tools of economics, but also takes an interest in economic agents, themselves driven by capitalist dynamic which animates them and which “finds in return, in scientific work a reflexivity and instruments to orient itself. » (p. 9). Finally, saving the environment also means transforming matter, energy, the productive potential of natural elements, into values, into rights capable of being exchanged and thus inserting them into the fluid world, or claims such, of the economy.

The ten texts of the work were produced and discussed within the framework of a working group bringing together all the authors, around three fundamental questions:

“How do we manufacture and carry out an economic activity that relies on the environment (by taking resources or emitting pollutants)?

How does the economic discipline appropriate the environment to the point of potentially distorting its characteristics?

How do we come to dispense with the environment, that is to say, to design conceptual systems, and to carry out concrete activities, ignoring the environment? » (p. 10).

Four themes are presented in the general introduction and developed in the various contributions, the authors being able to treat several of them: the role of the market (or how new markets and new goods are created); regimes and institutional configurations (for example the legal-technical configurations which support the economics of nature); the ontological and materiality issues (or how nature and its elements are defined, categorized, to be grasped by the system) and finally the place of economic theory (the creation of conceptual frameworks, theories, models which perform reality).

However, the different contributions of the work can also be grouped into three categories and this is the structure that we will adopt to account for them. The first category brings together authors who intend to draw up a more or less extensive assessment, and thus note the failure, of economic logic applied to the environment. Although these texts are not the most innovative, as a whole they provide good summaries of environmental conservation movements. A second group of contributions is more interested in concrete cases, and thus gains in depth of analysis, without the authors moving forward to draw up an assessment and generalize. Finally, the last two texts open up more cheerful perspectives, whether it is a question of methodological reconciliation for one or the possible emergence of “another world” for the other.

An observation of failure, various reasons

The failure noted in these contributions is that of policies based on instruments relating to economic mechanisms to prevent or even reduce environmental degradation, whether in terms of biodiversity or the climate. But it is above all the reasons for this failure which hold the authors back. If, as Dominique Pestre points out, the lack of political will seems obvious, the argument seems a little short. Also, Eve Chiapello focuses instead on showing the absence of systemic change, in the area of ​​the financialization of climate policy. She explains that so-called virtuous financial products, such as “green bonds”, are for example evaluated with the same criteria as those used for conventional financial products. It is in particular the correlation between return and risk that is sought, which therefore does not encourage players to turn to innovative projects. As long as this return/risk couple is not called into question, the effort is made by public finance which improves returns and/or reduces risks. No new financial products therefore, but conventional products that are simply less “brown” than the others and therefore qualified as “green”. But it should be noted that these products nevertheless act as a red rag, a diversionary technique to distract from the continuation of the business as usual.

Liliana Doganova and Brice Laurent place their analysis at the border of the political and economic spheres, to precisely highlight their excessive entanglement. They observe that when the market is supposed to be separated from politics (for example the carbon market), the institutions in charge of the market organization (in this case the European Commission) have significant power of action. But when market and politics are associated, as in that of so-called clean technologies, the multiplication of places of negotiation is an obstacle to the participation of actors with the most limited resources, and thus does not make it possible to achieve the targeted objectives.

For Philippe Quirion, finally, the failure of market instruments in the fight against climate change can be explained, in particular, by the fact that European public authorities have only based their actions on a superficial reading of the work of economists. For example, work on greenhouse gas quotas (GHG) have all shown the benefit of setting a floor price for these quotas, in order to reduce the risk of their undervaluation. However, perhaps because this would then have transformed the market for quotas of GHG into a hybrid instrument, too interventionist (as if the creation of this market itself was not), this is not the solution that was chosen.

Decomposed nature

Four chapters take us to the heart of machines for saving environmental elements.

This is the case with rain in Senegal. Through a financial product intended for vulnerable populations qualified as uninsurable, index insurance, Sara Angeli Aguiton follows the path of rains – rare – and associated agricultural yields. It thus shows the embeddedness of insurance in a broader set of social and economic organization, which combines development aid policies, start-ups, micro-credits, network of rain gauges, manual and automatic, and peasant organizations .

Julien Vincent takes us back in time, to the middle of XIXcentury, in New Zealand by dealing with the governance of “ghost hectares”, which are reminiscent of Gogol’s dead souls. It shows that the saving of natural elements is not new and that it was one of the dimensions of colonization. The land of the indigenous populations is literally wiped out here, only to resurface in the form of exchangeable rights distributed among the settlers.

In Alain Pottier’s contribution, it is the atmosphere that is put into economy; the author details the construction of the “greenhouse gas” entity, as a particularly complex mechanism, far from the “mythical, linear and cumulative story” told by certain economists.

Finally, it is the wind which is chosen by Alain Nadaï to follow the different operations of its transformation into electrical energy. As with the other chapters dealing with these concrete cases, and what seems particularly interesting to us, the study shows the relational arrangements and the complex chains of translations which lead to the saving of natural elements.

Moving forward in the understanding of these phenomena using concrete cases, beyond the scientific interest presented by these studies, seems likely to strengthen the mobilization and even the effectiveness of the actions of citizen movements.

Reconciliation as the future?

The last two chapters also open up perspectives for the future, which, in itself, is already comforting.

Juliette Rouchier pleads for a reconciliation of different approaches in environmental economics, in particular in order to overcome the opposition between orthodox and heterodox. According to her, combining very different modes of analysis of economic phenomena would make it possible to strengthen the relevance of work in economics, by filling their respective gaps and weaknesses.

As for Harold Levrel and Antoine Missemer, they perceive a new “ecological world” emerging. Trying to look beyond the observation of failure often made, the authors mobilize the theoretical framework of common worlds to analyze phenomena of resistance, or even decline, in the extension of the economic sphere. Their hypothesis is that these phenomena go beyond the anecdotal, particularly when they find a translation in the sphere of law, such as the personification of elements of the environment abroad, or the recognition in French law of a ecological damage that must be repaired as a priority in kind, precisely. For these authors, “legal developments which (…) have a strong performative and generalizing character, are a sign that a certain greening of the economy could be underway” (p. 207). It is interesting to note that legal authors made a similar observation regarding environmental economic law. Also guarding against excessive optimism, they nevertheless noted the ability of economic law to reconcile economy and environment in the face of powerful economic paradigms, to thus contribute to building another vision of the world.

At the end of the day, Save the environment is likely to concern a fairly wide audience. For those new to the subject, the book is a good introduction. It has the merit of showing the diversity of approaches and giving the possibility of going further, whether the interest is on theoretical or, on the contrary, more practical approaches to environmental questions addressed by the economy. For readers more familiar with the field, if the work constitutes an interesting synthesis of scientific work on the subject, it above all shows the avenues of research being traced and the desire, one can hope, to go further in the study of the greening of the economy.