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Unnatural Commodities: Who Owns Nature?

Climate change has provided the perfect “disaster capitalism” storm: an excuse for expanding corporate ownership and control over the commons. The offset provisions embodied in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) are symptomatic of a much larger, insidious trend that, in essence, “commodifies” all of life and thus seriously threatens every living being. In addition to the impacts of warming itself, low-income people and communities of color will also shoulder the burden of false solutions if the climate legislation currently in the United States Congress becomes climate policy.

The scale of this trend is little appreciated. Most of us envision renewable energy supports going to wind turbines and solar installations, but in fact the bulk of the research and development funding is being directed toward finding biomass/ plant-based substitutes for virtually everything that is now achieved with fossil fuels.

This “bioeconomy” vision seeks to have us burn, refine, or otherwise process all manner of plant matter—from woodchips and grasses, to corn and vegetable oils—for heat and power, for transportation fuels, for bioplastics, biochemicals, biomaterials and bioproducts. The study sponsored by the Department of Energy promotes a world where virtually anything currently made from petroleum can be produced in “integrated biorefineries.” While the promise of this vision is to replace the oil refineries of today with somethinggreener and cleaner, in fact the production of “feedstock” and its byproducts will directly impact the same sorts of communities already burdened by extraction, refining, and delivery of fossil fuels.

These technologies all depend very heavily on advances in biotechnology, including new GMO varieties (i.e. corn that is more amenable to being converted to ethanol, or trees with reduced “lignin,” a structural material that interferes with processing) and GMO and synthetic microbes for processing.
All agricultural products, forests, in fact, virtually anything living of remotely biological origin (and the underlying soil and water resources needed for their production) are increasingly assigned a price tag as somebody’s “sink” (offset for dirty emissions) or source of “renewable energy.” The resulting scramble over access to land, soils, food, and water is already resulting in human rights abuses, land grabs, and hunger.

Food is likely to be the touchpoint. We have already seen the beginnings with corn ethanol impacts on food prices forcing more of humanity into starvation. Urban communities, largely reliant on the distant “food system,” with little developed capacity to grow their own, and lacking resources to pay premium prices, will rapidly suffer the effects.

Unfortunately, policy measures like ACES have restricted themselves to consideration only of “solutions” that embrace market fundamentalism. Now, the ultimate commodities are up for sale: carbon—a fundamental element of all living things—plants, animals, soils, the entire biosphere and the atmosphere. If ACES becomes the basis for United States climate policy, access and control over these new markets and their financial flows will not likely land in the hands of the world’s poor and marginalized communities, who most likely will be left hungry and choking on the dust.

Rachel Smolker is a researcher and campaigner with Climate S.O.S. and the Global Forest Coalition.

Climate Change: Catalyst or Catastrophe? | Vol. 16, No. 2 | Fall 2009 | Credits

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