Why there and then, not here and now? Conservation offsetting in California and England, and the unravelling of neoliberal environmental fixes

Authors: Chris Rea*, UCLA, Andy Lockhart, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Environment, Economic Geography
Keywords: environmental markets, offsetting, environmental fixes, neoliberalism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 5:20 PM / 7:00 PM
Room: Grand Ballroom D, Astor, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Environmental markets have been theorized as neoliberal environmental ‘fixes’, designed to both internalize the contradictions of capitalist natures within the sphere of accumulation, and simultaneously depoliticize environmental limits. In this paper, we argue that the success of such fixes has depended on historically specific, and arguably non-repeatable, political economic conditions. To make this argument, we develop an analytical framework for explaining why conservation offset markets – notoriously beset by technical, institutional and political challenges – may or may not become established, comparing the case of conservation banking, which emerged in California in the 1990s, with the failed move to roll out a biodiversity offsetting programme in England beginning in 2010. Drawing on work in geography on the neoliberalization of nature and insights from economic sociology, we characterise conservation offset policies as examples of what we call ‘command-and-commodify’ regulation: a peculiar form of hybrid ecological regulation which depends on a distinctive mix of ‘authoritative’ and ‘economic’ power to function. In California, these kinds of environmental markets emerged at a quite distinctive historical juncture and moment of compromise, which enabled an institutional fix contingent on both an ideological and political economic embrace of ‘market’ solutions to environmental problems, on the one hand, and a somewhat paradoxical expansion of authoritative power to ecologically regulate land development, on the other. Our paper illuminates the ways that environmental fixes evolve, change and recede through time, and also raises serious questions as to the future of nature’s neoliberalization more generally.

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