In environmental literature there seems to be a recent fascination with the term ‘natural capital’. While the term seemingly signifies a positive notion, by producing a perspective of natural resources that are now understood as capital, and should thus be valued as such, the term also solidifies a particular socio-ecological relationship in line with a neoliberal worldview. Neoliberal forms of conservation work to provide external incentives that motivate people to act in conservation-friendly ways. So by framing resources, or the environment more generally, as ‘natural capital’, one associates benefits that can be derived and therefore one is motivated to treat the ‘natural capital’ in conservation-friendly ways. While this works towards a positive outcome, the means of providing such incentives contains troubling logic. What happens when the incentives for conservation are removed?
If people’s actions are trained to act towards monetary incentives, this not only puts the environment at risk during times of economic downturn, but also changes significantly the relationship that humans have with their surroundings. We are trained, in the capitalism system, to view objects in our environment according to how they benefit us individually. Therefore, the environment becomes a source of meeting our personal needs and wants and we impose power over it so that it produces what we want. This becomes even more intensified as we live in urban spaces that see ‘nature’ as something ‘other-than’ our current surroundings, thus nature is abstracted as a commodity to be managed and manipulated.
Such a conception of the environment is very different than that experienced by indigenous communities. In pre-modern Bhutanese farming communities, people viewed themselves as being at the mercy of the environment, crops being dependent on weather patterns that were controlled by deities in the landscape. Creation narratives in multiple religions also attest to alternative human-environment perceptions that frame the environment as worthy of protection motivating ethical behavior from followers. These examples point towards different socio-ecological relations that contest the model provided by neoliberal capitalism, one that does not create a vision of dominance over, but rather a symbiotic relationship with the environment.