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Rio+20, climate change, and critical scholarship: Beyond the critique of ‘green neoliberalism’?

Sara Nelsonby Sara Nelson, University of Minnesota

According to critical accounts of the recent Rio+20 summit, the results of the convention were predictable: failure to reach binding agreements; a lack of enforceable monetary commitments; and a lack of involvement on the part of the US, UK and Germany (McDonald 2012; Watts and Ford 2012). These critiques, however, risk being as uninspired as the widely-dismissed ‘outcome document’ itself. The ongoing charade of international conferences under the pretense of ‘global action’ on climate change and environmental degradation urges us to acknowledge not only the practical limitations of critical scholarship in terms of its influence on mainstream policy, but also the banality of critique itself. After all, is it possible to say anything about the Rio summit that hasn’t already been said about Copenhagen or Durban? When does pointing out the continued hegemony of green neoliberalism lose its critical valence, and become mere repetition?

According to participants who were optimistic about the proceedings at Rio, the emphasis on global consensus is misplaced. Jacob Scherr of The Huffington Post, for example, argues that the real outcomes of Rio were the small-scale commitments made by business leaders and government delegates, and the marginal meetings, talks, and processes of network-building that collectively “inspire a new generation of leaders” (Glenn Prickett of the Nature Conservancy, quoted in Scherr 2012). Quoting the late Nobel laureate economist Elinor Ostrom, Scherr argues that the global consensus model that has shaped summits like Rio 1992 and the Kyoto conventions is widely recognized as outdated. Rather than a blanket agreement, Rio contributed to the formation of a flexible and decentralized “system that can evolve and adapt rapidly” in the context of uncertain global change (Ostrom, quoted in Scherr 2012).

Such a system gains its coherency from a common vision of biospheric processes in terms of flows of capital, reframing climate change as an accounting problem. As Jo Confino (2012) reported for The Guardian, “One notable exception [to a lack of action on the part of business leaders] was the Natural Capital Leadership Compact signed by 15 global companies, which urged action to properly value and maintain the Earth’s natural capital”. Jonathan Watts and Liz Ford (2012) similarly reported that, despite their failure to agree on any binding monetary commitments, “Nations agreed to think about ways to place a higher value on nature, including alternatives to GDP as a measure of wealth that account more for environmental and social factors, and efforts to assess and pay for ‘environmental services’ provided by nature, such as carbon sequestration and habitat protection”.

There’s nothing particularly new, of course, in this vision of the biosphere in terms of a (debt-burdened) capitalist economy. This vocabulary has been fully incorporated into dominant approaches to conservation, and into the resilience theory that informs current approaches to climate change adaptation (see, for example, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report – see also Sullivan 2011; 2012; Robertson 2012). In this dominant framing, ecological and economic crisis become fused – if we can understand the relations among social-ecological systems as a complex accounting problem, we can expose the bad ecological debt underlying our monetary wealth. Further, the move away from global consensus toward flexible networks and partnerships should not be surprising to readers of Antipode, and is immediately comprehensible in the context of green neoliberalism (Gimenez 2012). Nevertheless, as critical voices continue to sound familiar alarms about the failure of these accords to reach binding agreements, events like Rio raise questions about the role of critical scholarship in the context of climate change. Without following Scherr’s credulous optimism about the steps laid at Rio in the path toward a ‘green’ economy, it is worth asking: are we missing something in our haste to decry such frameworks as ‘neoliberal’?

I won’t pretend to offer a fully-developed answer to these questions, but I would point out that such responses confine an oppositional stance within a narrow spectrum between global consensus and green-washed neoliberal capitalism. In doing so, they perhaps miss an opportunity to uncover the radical impulses behind concepts such as ‘resilience’ and ‘natural capital’ (as fellow Antipode staff reporter Jesse Goldstein has suggested). These concepts, read against the grain, describe a vision of the world in terms of radical potential and possibility, as a creative process of becoming. They carry an imperative to experiment in creating alternative possible futures. In this framework, capital is posited as the source of value, as potentiality rather than its foreclosure and alienation. Critical practice is, as ever, a practice of demonstrating – not merely intellectually, as if there were an ideological veil that could simply be lifted, but practically, through political action – the difference and antagonism between the productivity of the social-ecological common and capital as its apparatus of capture. In the context of climate change, this is, more than ever, a project that traverses the breadth of geographical practice, requiring new forms of articulation among social and cultural theory, the earth and life sciences, and political action. In lieu of answers, I would argue for the need to reframe how we think about cooptation – rather than only asking how radical ideas and efforts are being coopted, we can also ask what resources are available for reappropriation. It may be that the green capitalist movement offers opportunities for experimentation and resources to be coopted by anticapitalist projects, in addition to the inverse relation that we have all come to expect.


Confino J (2012) Rio+20: The Earth Summit diaries, Thursday 21 June. The Guardian 21 June (last accessed 10 July 2012)

Gimenez E H (2012) Green grabbing our future at Rio+20. The Huffington Post 21 June (last accessed 12 July 2012)

McDonald M (2012) U.N. report from Rio on environment a ‘suicide note’. IHT Rendezvous Blog 24 June (last accessed 12 July 2012)

Scherr S J (2012) Reflections on Rio: Encouraging cloud over the Earth Summit. The Huffington Post 10 July (last accessed 10 July 2012)

Sullivan S (2011) Banking nature? The financialization of environmental conservation. OAC Press: Working Papers Series #8 (last accessed 12 July 2012)

Sullivan S (2012) Banking nature? The spectacular financialisation of environmental conservation. Antipode DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2012.00989.x

Robertson M (2012) Measurement and alienation: Making a world of ecosystem services. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37(3):386-401

Watts J and Ford L (2012) Rio+20 Earth Summit: Campaigners decry final document. The Guardian 22 June (last accessed 10 July 2012)

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