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How I learned to stop worrying and love the market: virtualism, disavowal, and public secrecy in neoliberal environmental conservation.


"Truly, it is easier ... to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism."

Michael Taussig (1998, page 251)

This paper explores the implications of the quotation above [in which Taussig paraphrases Jameson (1994)] with respect to contemporary trends in environmental governance. As the full scale of the ecological problems confronting us has become increasingly apparent, efforts to address them have become increasingly focused on engagement with capitalist markets--a trend alternately termed 'market environmentalism', 'green capitalism', 'green neoliberalism', and 'neoliberal conservation'. Yet, for many critics, it is precisely capitalist markets that are in no small part responsible for the environmental problems they are now called upon to solve (see Fletcher, 2012a). Buscher (2012, page 29) thus describes neoliberal conservation as "the paradoxical idea that capitalist markets are the answer to their own ecological contradictions". In short, as Taussig suggests, while the ecological crisis threatening the future of life on Earth is becoming increasingly acknowledged within mainstream global society, at the same time it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine addressing this crisis in other than capitalist terms (see also Swyngedouw, 2011). Accounting for this paradox is the purpose of this analysis.

It does so by addressing two interrelated questions. First: why is there so often a substantial gap between vision and execution in neoliberal forms of environmental conservation? As I will show, many ostensibly market-based mechanisms include in their actual implementation tools and strategies largely antithetical to foundational neoliberal principles. In addition, irrespective of their methods, such mechanisms often fail to achieve intended results. While these dynamics have been noted by other research with respect to specific contexts and strategies, I suggest that they actually constitute a common pattern in neoliberal conservation. I contend that this situation results in part from the particular virtualistic (Carrier and Miller, 1998; Carrier and West, 2009) vision underlying market mechanisms, insofar as they seek to transform the world to conform to a model that is assumed to already exist. This vision, I suggest, contains fundamental errors while offering such impossible criteria for fulfillment that reconciling theory and practice would in fact be quite difficult.

If this is so, however, it raises a second key question: why is this gap between vision and execution so rarely acknowledged within neoliberal discourse itself? I demonstrate that, despite a common failure to execute neoliberal conservation strategies as envisioned, this reality is seldom directly attributed to the fundamental nature of market mechanisms themselves. Rather, it seems, neoliberal analysts tend to engage in a sort of 'fetishistic disavowal' (Zizek, 1989; 2008)--a simultaneous admission and denial--often superficially acknowledging yet ultimately dismissing for the most part potential critiques concerning the presence of essential contradictions in the performance of neoliberal mechanisms. It is this paradoxical dynamic to which the paper's title refers, playing off the subtitle of the classic film Dr Strangelove.

This in turn suggests that awareness of these contradictions assumes the form of a "public secret" (Taussig, 1998; 1999), something generally known yet rarely openly voiced. Given this dynamic, critiques of neoliberal environmental measures may face substantial obstacles, for, as Taussig (1999) observes, efforts to expose public secrets often achieve the opposite effect of obfuscating them further. To pursue effective critique, then, may require creative new strategies able to confront the public secrecy dynamic, a prospect I explore in the conclusion.

In developing this analysis, I build on a growing body of research addressing neoliberalization within natural resource management generally (see, eg, Castree, 2008; 2010; Heynen et al, 2007) and conservation specifically (eg, Brockington and Duffy, 2010; Brockington et al, 2008; Buscher et al, 2012; Fletcher, 2010; Sullivan, 2006) [but see Buscher et al (2012) for insightful discussion of important similarities and differences between these interrelated literatures]. At the same time, I draw on Slavoj Zizek's (eg, 1989; 2008) idiosyncratic fusion of Marx and Lacanian psychoanalysis to take this discussion in new directions. While Zizek has employed his framework to comment extensively on capitalist mechanisms in general, the particular dimensions of neoliberalization per se have not been extensively addressed. Several recent works have drawn on Zizek and other psychoanalytic perspectives to engage with neoliberalism in general (eg, Dean, 2008; Glynos, 2012; Layton, 2009) but have not addressed environmental governance. Likewise, several researchers have analyzed environmentalism from a Lacanian/Zizekian perspective (eg, Kingsbury, 2011; Stavrakakis, 1997a; 1997b; Swyngedouw, 2010; 2011) but have left the particular dimensions of neoliberalization within environmental governance largely unexplored. By bringing all of these discussions together here, I hope to produce a novel synthesis that contributes to an understanding of the growing trend to employ free market mechanisms to mitigate environmental degradation. As Bloch observes, "Most critics of neoliberalism leave the reader mystified as to how such flawed ideas could ever have become so powerful" (in Peck, 2010, back cover). Building on Peck's (2010) own incisive analysis, the present discussion seeks to account for this dynamic with respect to neoliberal conservation specifically.

While the analysis is primarily theoretical, it also draws on extensive previous empirical research concerning various aspects of environmental governance that I have conducted over the past decade in Latin America. The bulk of this research has addressed the two central neoliberal conservation mechanisms discussed in this paper--ecotourism and payment for environmental services (PES)--and has been published in a series of articles upon which the present discussion draws (eg, Fletcher, 2009; 2010; 2011; 2012a; 2012b; Fletcher and Breitling, 2012). Insights from this research are integrated into the conceptual framework described above in pursuit of a balance of theory and empiricism.

I begin by outlining the Lacanian/Zizekian framework underpinning this analysis. I then apply this framework to highlight a common divergence between vision and execution in the implementation of neoliberal environmental governance mechanisms, observing a characteristic pattern of antineoliberal intervention in the face of market mechanisms' common failure to perform as envisioned. I document a widespread tendency to deny this reality by explaining it not as a failure of market mechanisms per se but, on the contrary, as a failure to engage the market to a sufficient degree. I analyze this as an expression of disavowal concerning the contradictions of neoliberal governance, describing the manner in which the logic of neoliberal discourse obfuscates these dynamics. I suggest that this obfuscation assumes the form of public secrecy concerning neoliberalism's common failure to perform as intended and conclude by theorizing ways in which this reality can be confronted in the interest of developing more effective means to critique the neoliberal project.

Neoliberalism, fantasy, and desire

Zizek's framework [first substantially outlined in The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989)] is grounded in Lacan's iconic triad: Imaginary-Symbolic-Real. In this model, the Real is a placeholder name for that which subverts signification, exhibiting a dual character as "both the hard, impenetrable kernel resisting symbolization and a pure chimerical entity which has in itself no ontological consistency" (page 190). By contrast, the Symbolic designates our attempts to represent the Real and impose order upon it. Because of the very nature of the Real, however, such representation inevitably falls short of its aim. The Real, as Lacan famously asserted, is thus 'impossible', incapable of representation; it is "the rock upon which every attempt at symbolization stumbles" (Zizek, 1989, page 190).

As a result, there is invariably a gap between the Real and its Symbolic representation, with the Real comprising an "irreducible excess" (Zizek, 1989, page 57) overflowing our illusions of order and coherence. This excess, denied within the symbolic order, manifests as "symptom", as the "return of the repressed" (page 57) by means of which the Real ruptures and undermines Symbolic attempts to create coherence. A symptom is thus "the point at which the immanent social antagonism assumes a positive form, erupts on to the social surface, the point at which it becomes obvious that society 'doesn't work', that the social mechanism 'creaks'" (page 143). A symptom therefore indicates a fundamental antagonism or inconsistency in the social order; it is a "surplus-object" or "the leftover of the Real eluding symbolization" (page 51).

The Imaginary, the third element in Lacan's triad, represents our efforts to conceal this essential disjuncture by means of fantasy, which Zizek calls the "screen concealing the gap" (1989, page 132) between the Real and the Symbolic. Fantasy thus "constitutes the frame through which we experience the world as consistent and meaningful", obscuring the fact that the Symbolic order is in fact "structured around some traumatic impossibility, around something which cannot be symbolized" (page 138). In other words, "fantasy is a means for an ideology to take its own failure into account in advance" (page 142).

This function of fantasy is sustained through desire, pursuit of what Lacan called jouissance, usually translated as 'enjoyment' but more properly a mixture of pleasure and pain that promises a satisfaction it can never deliver. Hence, unresolved desire is sustained over time, and thus "In the fantasy-scene desire is not fulfilled, 'satisfied,' but constituted" (Zizek, 1989, page 132). Rather, "through fantasy, jouissance is domesticated" (page 138). In this way, fantasy's promise to deliver the desired satisfaction at some future point conceals the impossibility of this promise, the Real-Symbolic gap it obscures, and the symptoms that signal this disjuncture as well. In the process, fantasy commonly invokes a scapegoat, such that the disjuncture between the Real and the Symbolic is further sutured by positing the infiltration of "an external element, a foreign body introducing corruption into the sound social fabric" (page 142). In this manner, "what is excluded from the Symbolic ... returns in the real as a paranoid construction of" that which is repressed (page 143).

As a shorthand description for this complex dynamic, ideology can thus be understood as "a totality set on effacing the traces of its own impossibility" (page 50).

How neoliberal is neoliberal conservation?

In this section I draw on the framework outlined above to analyze the paradoxical dimensions of neoliberal conservation governance noted earlier. As previously described, so-called market-based conservation mechanisms are increasingly promoted to address pressing environmental problems, from biodiversity loss to climate change, by international financial institutions, national governments, private sector firms, and, increasingly, even the NGOs ostensibly intended to represent civil society interests vis-a-vis all of the preceding (Chapin, 2004; Corson, 2010; Levine, 2002). Such market mechanisms, which include established forms such as ecotourism, payment for environmental services, and carbon markets (Fletcher, 2009; 2012b; Fletcher and Breitling, 2012), as well as newly emerging forms including environmental derivatives and species and wetlands banking (see Buscher, forthcoming; Sullivan, 2013), are explicitly designed to ascribe sufficient monetary value to natural resources that stakeholders will elect to preserve rather than deplete them, thereby incentivizing conservation over resource extraction (see Fletcher, 2010).

Despite this growing enthusiasm concerning neoliberal conservation mechanisms, their efficacy in many cases remains questionable. Indeed, a growing body of research demonstrates that such mechanisms in fact commonly fail to perform as intended (eg, Buscher and Dressler, 2007; Carrier and West, 2009; Fletcher, 2012a; Fletcher and Breitling, 2012; Lohmann, 2011; McAfee, 2012a; 2012b; Milne and Adams, 2012; West, 2006). Moreover, even in cases where neoliberal mechanisms do appear successful, there is often ambiguity concerning the extent to which such mechanisms are actually faithful to the principles they claim to enact. Even acknowledging the extreme heterogeneity of neoliberalization in practice (more on this below), an essential neoliberal tenet dictates that primary responsibility for allocating resources should be left to market actors, with the state acting mostly to provide the legal and administrative structures shaping markets rather than intervening directly (see Fletcher, 2010; Foucault, 2008). This is certainly not to imply that neoliberalism proscribes all state involvement in the market, as critics often assume. On the contrary, as Foucault observes, foundational neoliberal economists, including both Hayek and Friedman, maintained that intervention was in fact necessary to "make the market possible" (Foucault, 2008, page 146), for the market was not seen as a natural, presocial entity but an artificial construct requiring continual maintenance (see also Fletcher, 2010; Peck, 2010). Hence, Foucault maintains, "Neoliberalism should not be identified with laissez-faire, but rather with permanent vigilance, activity and intervention" (2008, page 132).

Even given this more nuanced understanding of the neoliberal state, however, it is clear that many ostensibly neoliberal conservation mechanisms do not function as such in practice. In his analysis, Foucault (2008, page 174) distinguishes between "organizing" and "regulatory" actions, observing that while neoliberalism encourages the former (through state action to create the "conditions of the market through legal and administrative structures"), it seeks to minimize the latter, which entail direct intervention in market transactions. Hence, mechanisms that involve substantial regulatory intervention rather than mere organizing activity can be seen as contrary to core neoliberal principles.

My previous research has revealed several instances in which ostensibly neoliberal conservation strategies function otherwise in practice. Here, I will consider just two of these--ecotourism and PES--as these are arguably the most paradigmatic (and widespread) neoliberal conservation mechanisms at present. Concerning PES, my research demonstrates that Costa Rica's celebrated national program, while widely hailed as a successful example of market-based conservation, actually relies extensively on nonmarket mechanisms to function, including a national law prohibiting land-use change on private land and national fuel and water taxes appropriating and redistributing resources to fund the system (see Fletcher and Breitling, 2012). In fact, voluntary market transactions, upon which the program is ostensibly based in its expressed intention to transfer payments from consumers of environmental services to these services' producers, comprise less than 1% of the program's total activity, despite persistent efforts to enhance the centrality of this mechanism (Blackman and Woodward, 2010). As a result, over the program's life the state has been forced to increase its reliance on nonmarket tools in order to keep the program running, with the result that, in its actual practice, the PES system functions less as a neoliberal mechanism than a subsidy in disguise (Fletcher and Breitling, 2012). Milne and Adams (2012) reach a remarkably similar conclusion concerning a community-based PES program in Cambodia.

My research on ecotourism demonstrates an analogous dynamic. While industry advocates often explicitly endorse a neoliberal approach to encouraging local participation in the industry, promoting ecotourism as a means for local users to profit from in situ natural resources and thus incentivizing these resources' conservation--what Honey (2008, page 3) calls the "stakeholder theory"--in their actual practice planners tend to enact a quite different perspective. Planners' efforts to appeal to locals commonly entails an implicit effort to acculturate the latter to aspects of the particular cultural perspective that motivates ecotourism's practice, demonstrating that despite their neoliberal rhetoric, many planners actually consider such value change as important to successful ecotourism development as provision of economic incentives (Fletcher, 2009).

Similar dynamics have been documented elsewhere (Buscher and Dressler, 2007; Carrier and West, 2009). Hence, Buscher and Dressler (2007) describe a common gap between 'reality' and 'rhetoric' in neoliberal environmental policies, while Carrier and West (2009) identify a similar disjuncture between 'vision' and 'execution'. On the whole, Harvey (2005, page 19) highlights "a creative tension between the power of neoliberal ideas and the actual practices of neoliberalization that have transformed how global capitalism has been working over the last three decades". Peck (2010, page xiii, emphasis in original) describes the history of neoliberalization as "one of repeated, prosaic, and often botched efforts to fix markets, to build quasi-markets, and to repair market failure". Steger and Roy (2010) outline a long series of failed efforts by neoliberal policies to achieve intended results in diverse contexts, from Chile's dramatic 1982 recession following nearly a decade of aggressive liberalization through US President George W Bush's plunging of the global economy into the current crisis. Indeed, one might assert with Peck (2010) that a neoliberal vision-execution gap is nigh inevitable, that neoliberal conservation mechanisms may in fact be largely incapable of achieving their lofty goal of facilitating substantial resource preservation on a global scale. Why this would be so is the subject of the next section.

Vision and execution

In his influential Brief History of Neoliberalism, Harvey contends that neoliberal economics functions largely as an ideological smokescreen concealing the fact that neoliberalization is at root a project by means of which a transnational capitalist class (Sklair, 2001) seeks to consolidate wealth and power through a strategy of "accumulation by dispossession". He writes:

"It has been part of the genius of neoliberal theory to provide a benevolent mask full of wonderful-sounding words like freedom, liberty, choice, and rights, to hide the grim realities of the restoration or reconstitution of naked class power, locally as well as transnationally, but most particularly in the main financial centres of global capitalism" (Harvey, 2005, page 119).

Neoliberalism, here, is thus understood as an ideology in the classic Marxist sense of a "false consciousness" concealing an underlying objective reality (see Scott, 1990). From this perspective, the ostensive "gap" between vision and execution in neoliberal governance exists because neoliberal policies were never in fact intended to function as in the public interest in the first place. Hence, Harvey (2005, page 19) asserts "that when neoliberal principles clash with the need to restore or sustain elite power, then the principles are either abandoned or become so twisted as to be unrecognizable".

An alternate, yet complementary view, taking its cue from Polanyi's (1944) analysis of liberalism's "double movement", suggests that neoliberal policies tend to produce such "perverse economic consequences and pronounced social externalities" that extramarket intervention is required to redress these excesses in order to stave off the social unrest they would otherwise precipitate (Peck and Tickell, 2002, page 388). In this frame, the vision-execution gap results not merely from the project of accumulation per se but from the need to restore order when this project runs awry (see also Peck, 2010).

Undoubtedly there is some truth in both of these analyses, instances in which elites cynically manipulate neoliberal policies for their own ends while subordinates embrace the dominant ideology offered to conceal this aim, as well as moments in which neoliberal excess demands a reactionary response in the form of state intervention. However, as might be expected given his trenchant critique of many aspects of Marxist epistemology (see, especially, Foucault, 1991), in a recently published series of lectures from 1979 Foucault preemptively contests the perspectives outlined above, viewing neoliberalism not as ideological smokescreen concealing material interests but as a discourse, that is, as a "whole way of thinking and being", a "general style of thought, analysis and imagination" (2008, page 218). In this understanding, neoliberalism does not conceal reality so much as construct it--or at least a certain depiction of reality--by generating a particular "truth-regime of the market" (page 144). This in fact brings us close to Zizek's understanding of ideology as "not simply a 'false consciousness,' an illusory representation of reality"; in his view, "it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as 'ideological' " (1989, page 15).

Neoliberalism, in this sense, can be understood as a quintessential example of what Carrier and colleagues (Carrier and Miller, 1998; Carrier and West, 2009) call "virtualism", a project that seeks to reshape the world in conformance with its predetermined vision while claiming to merely reflect the reality it seeks to transform. Hence, Lemke (2001, page 203) describes neoliberalism as a "political project that endeavours to create a social reality that it suggests already exists", while Bourdieu (1998) depicts neoliberalism as "the implementation of a utopia" that paradoxically "conceiv[es] of itself as the scientific description of reality".

This neoliberal virtualism is strongly universalizing in that it seeks, both within particular societies and throughout the world, to extend from economic markets to transform other realms of social life--including such diverse spaces as the public sphere, the penal system, and interpersonal relations--on the model of the market as well (Foucault, 2008). In this respect, neoliberalism's proliferation has been extraordinary, rising within the space of a mere thirty years from an obscure theory espoused by a handful of marginal "crackpots" to become the dominant organizing principle of the global political economy (see Peck, 2010), such that today "neo-liberalism has become hegemonic as a mode of discourse. It has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the commonsense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world" (Harvey, 2005, page 3). Similarly, Thrift (2005, page 4) observes that "the language of [neoliberal] economics has become common linguistic currency, making it increasingly difficult to conceive of the world in any terms except those of a calculus of supply and demand."

Describing neoliberalism as a universalizing virtualism is certainly not to depict it as an irresistible juggernaut inexorably transforming everything in its path. Rather, as many have noted, neoliberalism is commonly applied unevenly, heterogeneously, in syncretism with local institutions (see eg, Brenner et al, 2010; Buscher and Dressler, 2012; Dressler and Roth, 2010; Foucault, 2008; Harvey, 2005; Peck, 2010). Indeed, neoliberalism's diversity and flexibility can be seen as two of its central characteristics (Brenner et al, 2010; Buscher et al, 2012; Peck, 2010). Yet, as Brenner, Peck, and Theodore contend,

"empirical evidence underscoring the stalled, incomplete, discontinuous or differentiated character of projects to impose market rule, or their coexistence alongside potentially antagonistic projects (for instance, social democracy) does not provide a sufficient basis for questioning their neoliberalized, neoliberalizing dimensions" (2010, page 332).

Despite diversity in the empirical character of particular projects, in other words, we can identify a common process of neoliberalization at work in countless initiatives throughout the world, grounded in a relatively coherent body of economic theory and expressed through a set of similar policies and practices, a virtualistic vision that seeks to reshape the world in conformance with a model that is assumed to already be inscribed within the reality it confronts.

From this perspective, then, neoliberalism would be conceived not as a mystifying ideology obscuring the 'real' aim of class consolidation but would take at face value that at least some neoliberal advocates earnestly believe that their perspective is capable of achieving intended goals and genuinely strive to make it do so (Li, 2007; Peck, 2010). This is certainly not to deny that the philosophy can be used cynically at times to pursue actors' self-interested ends (as neoliberal theory itself would indeed predict) or conceal their true intentions. But one cannot necessarily assume such motives at the outset in all cases. In this understanding, neoliberal policies would be seen to fail to achieve intended aims when their virtualistic vision conflicts with the reality it seeks to transform. Buscher and Dressler (2007) therefore attribute disjuncture between rhetoric and reality in neoliberal conservation to the fact that projects tend to operate with simplistic blueprints that do not do justice to the complex local realities they confront, calling to mind Scott's (1998) influential analysis of the common failure of large-scale transformational projects in general. In a Lacanian frame, this would be described as a manifestation of the inevitable gap between Real and Symbolic representation.

I would go further, however, to contend that neoliberal projects fail not merely because of their simplified vision per se but because of the particular nature of this vision. First, there is obviously the fact that, as a number of critical economists recognize, the so-called free market that neoliberal policies seek to implement and harness is extremely difficult--if not impossible--to realize. As Stiglitz describes,

"markets were efficient only if capital markets were impossibly perfect.... There could be no externalities (no problems of air and water pollution), no public goods, no issues of learning, and no advances in technology that were the result either of learning or expenditures on R&D ... there also could not be any imperfections of information, changes in the information structure, or asymmetries of information" (2008a, page 42).

In addition to these significant obstacles, the theory of essential human nature--and thus of the nature of motivation, human relations, and social change as well--in which neoliberalism is grounded is, I would argue, so fundamentally flawed, misrepresenting in such significant ways how humans actually behave, that it would in fact be quite difficult for neoliberal policies to function as intended. Specifically, neoliberal theory is commonly grounded in a rational actor/Homo economicus model of human nature and behavior, assuming that people seek, first and foremost, to maximize their material utility and perform cost--benefit assessment in order to best achieve this (see Foucault, 2008). The basic neoliberal governance strategy--to create incentive structures that encourage people to exercise their rational choice in socially desirable ways--follows fundamentally from this view (Fletcher, 2010). Yet this model of human nature has long been contested by anthropologists, among others, who contend that it does not accurately describe human motivation in all situations and contexts (see Buscher et al, 2012 for an overview of this critique). Graeber (2011), indeed, asserts that only through centuries of concerted violence, both physical and conceptual, has this peculiar vision become so widely accepted. And if the understanding of the nature of human motivation informing neoliberal policies is so essentially flawed--if there is such a fundamental gap, in other words, between the Real of human nature and its representation in neoliberal theory--policies and practices following from this understanding would be hard pressed to function otherwise.

Disaster and dissimulation

Notwithstanding the frequency of its occurrence, neoliberalism's failure to achieve intended results is rarely explicitly acknowledged--is, in fact, commonly denied or explained away --within mainstream economic discourse (Buscher et al, 2012). Consider, for instance, the dominant response to the current global economic crisis. The deepening recession of late 2008 witnessed a proliferation of statements claiming that the crisis signaled neoliberalism's wholesale failure and the need to return to some type of Keynesian regulatory regime (see Peters, 2008). Stiglitz, most trenchantly perhaps, proclaimed:

"Neo-liberal market fundamentalism was always a political doctrine serving certain interests. It was never supported by economic theory. Nor, it should now be clear, is it supported by historical experience. Learning this lesson may be the silver lining in the cloud now hanging over the global economy" (2008b).

Yet less than a year later, following the infamous bailout packages implemented in a number of countries, such voices had largely fallen silent or even reversed their positions.

Thus the IMF stated in its 2009 Annual Report:

"The seeds of the global crisis were sown during the years of high growth and low interest rates that bred excessive optimism and risk taking and spawned a broad range of failures--in market discipline, financial regulation, macroeconomic policies, and global oversight" (2009, page 9, emphasis added).

The last three of these 'failures', of course, refer to errors in state governance, while the first concerns the 'irrational exuberance' of market players (a classic neoliberal scapegoat --see Dean, 2008; Layton, 2009). Similarly, an open letter signed by more than 200 economists published in The New York Times in January 2009 asserted, "Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth" (cited in Peck, 2010, page 270).

All of this conforms to Foucault's characterization of the logic of neoliberal response to economic crisis in general: "Nothing proves that the market economy is intrinsically defective since everything attributed to it as a defect and as the effect of its defectiveness should really be attributed to the state" (2008, page 116). A similar response predominated in past neoliberal crises as well. Harvey describes this same logic in the mainstream response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, observing, "The standard IMF/US Treasury explanation for the crisis was too much state intervention and corrupt relationships between state and business ('crony capitalism'). Further neoliberalization was the answer" (2005, page 97). Steger and Roy (2010) identify a similar response to the series of crises precipitated by neoliberal restructuring in the US and elsewhere over the span of several decades. In short, Peck observes,

"It is both an indictment of neoliberalism and testament to its dogged dynamism, of course, that laboratory experiments do not 'work'. They have nonetheless tended to 'fail forward', in that their repeated manifest inadequacies have--so far anyway--repeatedly animated further rounds of neoliberal intervention" (2010, page 6).

This response, which I call 'the beatings will continue until morale improves' strategy, has been prevalent in the realm of environmental governance as well. In October 2008, as the crisis deepened, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature held its World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, Spain, during which, as Ken MacDonald (2010) describes, a market agenda which had until then been hotly debated among the organization's membership achieved hegemony within the upper echelons. Christine MacDonald thus observes:

"By early October, when the world's conservation elites gathered in Barcelona for their biggest meeting of the year, markets were crashing around the world, spreading panic and doubt about the wisdom of unbridled free market economics. But the conservationists, corporate CEOs, billionaire philanthropists, and heads of state and royal houses don't seem to have heard the news. In Barcelona's conference rooms and banquet halls, the conversation centered on how environmental groups must become even more like corporations" (2009).

How do we account for this persistent resilience of neoliberal ideology in the face of widespread critique concerning its failure in practice? In Harvey's Marxist vision, of course, this is easily explained: if neoliberal ideology is not intended to accurately account for reality at all, but merely to obfuscate the class project it seeks to legitimate, then 'failure' is merely further obfuscated through additional obscuring rhetoric. Undoubtedly, again, there is some truth in this view, at least with respect to some (perhaps most) stakeholders. Yet this appears to be only part of the picture. Buscher and colleagues offer a more nuanced analysis of this issue in seeking to explain "why the neoliberalizing of environmental conservation is so opaque and seductive to those involved with conservation work" (2012, page 24). They contend that neoliberal conservation tends to obfuscate fundamental contradictions in its deployment by means of three main tactics: (1) 'win-win' rhetoric asserting that these contradictions can be resolved through the very processes that stimulate them; (2) media spectacle creating "the appearance of general consensus with the ideological assumptions of neoliberal capitalism" (page 18, emphasis in original); and (3) the aggressive disciplining of dissenting voices that question these representations. All of this, they contend, results in a sort of "closed loop" thinking, "whereby in failing to take into account the wider processes of which it is part, the self-corrective actions of an ill-functioning system perpetuate illness-causing conditions, while providing temporary illusion of improvement" (page 14).

Yet, again, this may explain only a portion of the phenomenon in question. Consider the following statement, offered by an ecological economist in the online discussion of a critique of emerging conservation financialization strategies (Sullivan, 2010): "if we were serious about having a true market economy, mergers and acquisitions and other means of concentrating power would be disallowed" (William Rees, forum/moneyandwealth/can-nature-be-monetized-capital-institute-conversation). This statement strikes me as extraordinary, tantamount to acknowledging an inherent contradiction at the very heart of neoliberal policy. For free markets to exist, Rees appears to be saying, they must be regulated in ways diametrically opposed to the essential neoliberal principle dictating that the state should not intervene directly in the market to regulate players' resource -allocation decisions. This contradictory pronouncement seems to go beyond the techniques of obfuscation that Buscher and colleagues (2012) highlight. Rather, it smacks of the dynamic that Zizek (1989, page 12) calls "fetishistic disavowal", represented by the formula: "I know very well, but still ." In Zizek's (2008, page 14) description, for instance, a Cold War communist might admit, "I know very well that things are horrible in the Soviet Union, but I nevertheless believe in Soviet socialism". Similarly, in the statement cited above, Rees seems to be saying, "I know free markets are impossible, nevertheless I believe in their potential."

Likewise, Buscher and colleagues note that "not all conservationists are so smitten by the allure of neoliberal solutions" (2012, page 15), highlighting instances in which critical assessment of market-based mechanisms have been published by prominent mainstream voices in core conservation journals (eg, Chan et al, 2007; Child, 2009; Ehrenfeld, 2008; Peterson et al, 2009; Redford and Adams, 2009; Walker et al, 2009). Yet such "critical messages are often ignored by mainstream organizations and media, and if they are acknowledged, often denied or twisted to suit particular neoliberal objectives" (Buscher et al, 2012, page 22). As a result the authors observe, paradoxically, that "alternative viewpoints do not always need to be actively suppressed in order to be disciplined. Indeed, they can perversely be stimulated as some kind of catharsis, without impacting on the broader hegemonic system" (page 22).

A Lacanian/Zizekian analysis of this dynamic may help to shed light on this situation by framing neoliberal theory and the practices through which it is implemented as a Symbolic order that attempts to simultaneously represent and shape the Real in virtualistic fashion. The Real, of course, inevitably exceeds this imposition, generating the characteristic gap between vision and execution in neoliberal governance observed earlier. This gap manifests as symptom, the main form of which, as Zizek (2008) describes of capitalism in general, is superfluous waste: the environmental and social excess that neoliberalism externalizes in its quest for profit, namely, the ecological damage wrought by, and the masses rendered expendable within, the capitalist production process.

The gap between neoliberal theory and the Real it confronts, as well as the waste accumulated as symptom of this gap, is sutured within the Imaginary through fantasy, in this case most fundamentally what Dean (2008) calls "the fantasy of free trade" [and what Bourdieu (1998) similarly describes as "the neoliberal utopia of a pure and perfect market" and "free trade faith"]. As Dean relates,

"The fantasy of free trade covers over persistent market failure, structural inequalities, the violence of privatization, and the redistribution of wealth to the 'have mores'. Free trade sustains at the level of fantasy what it seeks to avoid at the level of reality--namely actually free trade among equal players, that is equal participants with equal opportunities to establish the rules of the game, access information, distribution, and financial networks, etc" (2008, page 55).

In other words, the fantasy of free trade dictates that no matter how greatly neoliberal policies fail in practice, the fiction can be sustained that this failure is due not to any fundamental errors or contradictions in these policies' internal logic but rather to the fact that they have been implemented incompletely, and thus that if only neoliberalism could function with less inhibition, less state regulation, it would actually perform as intended. As Zizek (2008) observes, in this fantasy (neoliberal) capitalism fails because it is not pure enough. This logic, it seems, accounts for the standard neoliberal response to economic crisis, which, as Foucault paraphrased above, asserts: "Nothing proves that the market economy is intrinsically defective since everything attributed to it as a defect and as the effect of its defectiveness should really be attributed to the state" (page 116). In this way, Zizek intimates, neoliberal "ideology really succeeds when even the facts which at first sight contradict it start to function as arguments in its favour" (1989, page 50).

As Dean (2008) points out, it is of course desire that sustains this fantasy of free trade: desire on the part of neoliberal advocates to see their policies function as intended; desire on the part of those excluded from neoliberalism's benefits to finally receive the material rewards dangled in front of them. De Vries (2007) identifies this latter function of desire in international development policy, wherein the masses excluded from the fruits of development may nevertheless sustain faith in development's potential because of their desire to receive the benefits (projects, public works, etc) long promised by planners (see also Glynos, 2012). It is this same desire, I suggest, that in part makes neoliberalism so resilient, so resistant to critique; rather than undermining this perspective, paradoxically, neoliberalism's thwarting of the jouissance it promises merely enhances its appeal by augmenting desire for the elusive fulfillment. In addition, of course, neoliberalism does in fact deliver a semblance of a promised pleasure, and thus "for quite a few people, capitalism is not just hard graft. It is also fun. People get stuff from it--and not just more commodities. Capitalism has a kind of crazy vitality. It doesn't just line its pockets. It also appeals to gut feelings" (Thrift, 2005, page 1; see also Glynos, 2012). Yet this may merely enhance one's ideological attachment by stimulating desire for further sensation in pursuit of a satisfaction constantly deferred (Fletcher and Neves, 2012).

As noted above, fantasy is commonly sustained through positing scapegoats, and in the case of neoliberalism the chief scapegoat is the opposite of free trade, namely socialism --or rather, the "paranoid construction" of a caricatured and stereotyped socialism ostensibly corrupting the capitalist system. Hence, Peck (2010, pages 7-8) observes, "Even after decades of neoliberal reconstruction, it is remarkable how many present-day policy failures are still being tagged to intransigent unions, to invasive regulation, to inept bureaucrats, and to scaremongering advocacy groups." This specter of socialism is used to silence criticism and reaffirm neoliberalism, as ideologues from Thatcher to Fukuyama have insisted, as the sole tenable social order (resulting in the common opposition between capitalism and socialism framed as diametrically distinct--and the only conceivable--options). Thus, when Zizek writes that "one of the ideological strategies is to fully admit the threatening character of a dysfunction, and to treat it as an external intrusion, not a necessary result of the system's inner dynamic" (2008, page 389), socialism (in the guise of state regulation) serves just this role within the fantasy space of neoliberal discourse.

In this vision, environmental conservation governance grounded in neoliberal mechanisms can be understood as a fantasy that functions in the manner of Zizek's oft-repeated metaphor of the chocolate laxative, an actual product whereby the object is promoted as the solution to the problem (constipation) it itself provokes. Similarly, as Buscher describes, neoliberal conservation asserts "the paradoxical idea that capitalist markets are the answer to their own ecological contradictions" (2012, page 12). This fantasy, as asserted above, is sustained through disavowal--a simultaneous acknowledgment and denial. Examples could be multiplied endlessly from contemporary debates concerning appropriate conservation strategies. As but one instance, in their recent review of research addressing PES, ecological economists Farley and Costanza (2010) highlight then contest critiques (eg, Redford and Adams, 2009) asserting that PES necessitates privatization and commodification of resources. On the contrary, Farley and Constanza contend, PES schemes "do not require commodification" (2010, page 2060) but may include services involving the "capacity of ecosystem structure to reproduce itself" rather than merely instrumental services such as "food, fiber, fuel, and water" (page 2062). Likewise, such services can be "based on reciprocity rather than conditional monetary incentives" (page 2063). Similarly, Farley and Costanza claim that PES "can propertize ecosystems and their services without privatizing them", since property may be held collectively rather than individually (page 2061, emphasis in original).

Yet the inconsistency in this formulation is evident. PES may encompass intrinsic values and work through reciprocity but it must still commodify resources if it is to provide the monetary compensation that stands as its most essential feature (and even Farley and Costanza's main example of a "reciprocal transaction"--providing up-front extension payments--involves such compensation). Likewise, property collectively held is still privatized if others are denied access and payments are delivered only to the owners. Despite its claim to transcend the reduction of complex socioecological systems to base economic valuation, in other words, this type of logic ends up advocating precisely this while obfuscating the process by which it does so. In this way, ecological economics may facilitate disavowal through its redescription of complex realities into a new form that transforms and reduces the scope of what can be thought and communicated (see Sullivan, forthcoming), while simultaneously introducing new complexity through the use of esoteric language that renders its reasoning difficult to understand--and thus critique--thereby obscuring logical inconsistencies in its presentation.

Disavowal and public secrecy

As described above, awareness of the common gap between vision and execution in neoliberal conservation often assumes the form of fetishistic disavowal, a dynamic exemplified in the statement cited above by ecological economist Rees, who endorses the fantasy of free trade while simultaneously admitting its impossibility. Freud, who, at the end of his life, apparently came to see disavowal as a potentially more significant defense mechanism than repression (see Layton, 2009), described the former as a simultaneous knowing and not knowing. This paradoxical characterization of disavowal calls to mind Taussig's analysis of what he labels "public secrecy", likewise characterized as an "active not-knowing", or "knowing what not to know" (Taussig, 1999, pages 6-7). In Taussig's analysis, a public secret is defined as "that which is generally known but cannot generally be articulated" (1998, page 246), as a "magnificent deceit in whose making all members of a society, so it would seem, conspire", albeit not fully consciously (1992, page 132). Taussig claims that public secrecy is such an important element in maintaining social order that "without such shared secrets any and all social institutions ... would founder" (1999, page 7), that "What we call doctrine, ideology, consciousness, beliefs, values and even discourse, pale into sociological insignificance" (page 3) beside this dynamic, and thus that public secrecy "lies at the core of power" (page 6).

The most intriguing aspect of Taussig's analysis for the present discussion is that efforts to expose public secrets often paradoxically reinforce them, for "part of secrecy is secreting" and thus "exposure is precisely what the secret intends" (1998, page 242). Hence, Taussig explains, public secrecy seems to have "built-in protection against exposure because exposure, or at least a certain modality of exposure, is what, in fact, it thrives upon" (1999, page 216). In reality, of course, the "true" "secret" of a public secret is that "there is none" (page 216), that in fact all is clearly revealed to the public gaze. Hence claiming that one is revealing a public secret paradoxically creates an aura of secrecy by invoking the idea that there is in fact a secret that can be either concealed or revealed. After all, it is impossible to discover something that is already known, and "this is what will always resist the wedge of truth no matter how interested, or persistent. ... the wedge may be" (Taussig, 1998, page 242).

Zizek describes his approach to ideology in a similar manner, observing that "the laying bare of its mechanism functions as a fetish which conceals the crucial dimension of [its] form" (1997, page 102). Like Taussig's claim concerning the absence of secrecy at the heart of the public secret, Zizek asserts that "Fantasy is basically a scenario filling out the empty space of a fundamental impossibility, a screen masking a void", that ultimately "there is nothing 'behind' " this mask, and that "fantasy masks precisely this nothing" (1989, page 141). In other words, what is hidden is "precisely the fact that there is nothing to hide. What is concealed is that the very act of concealing conceals nothing" (page 219).

While Buscher and colleagues claim that an ideology "needs to be believed in[,] its central tenets should not be questioned" (2012, page 15); therefore, it may be that critical questioning at times actually reinforces ideology itself. Hence, Zizek claims that in the contemporary period, ideology increasingly functions through what he, following Sloterdijk (1988), calls "cynical reason", in terms of which, paradoxically, "an ideological identification exerts a hold on us precisely when we are aware that we are not fully identical to it" (Zizek, 1997, page 21).

"The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he nonetheless still insists upon the mask. The formula, as proposed by Sloterdijk, would then be: 'they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it'. Cynical reason is no longer naive, but is a paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it" (Zizek, 1989, pages 25-26).

Similarly, Taussig asserts not only that public secrecy "thrives on a corrosive skepticism" but that in fact "skepticism and belief actively cannibalize one another" (1999, page 235). Hence, the success of public secrecy lies not in "skilled concealment but in the skilled revelation of skilled concealment" (page 222).

As a result, skepticism on the part of conservationists (or ecological economists) concerning the efficacy of market mechanisms may in fact function to support the disavowal sustaining the ideology ostensibly problematized. In this way, as Buscher and colleagues observe, critique "can perversely be stimulated ... without impacting on the broader hegemonic system" (Zizek, 2012, page 22).

The perplexing consequence of this analysis is that neither efforts to 'raise awareness' concerning the 'true' nature of a phenomenon (ie, neoliberalism) nor even subjects' ostensive acknowledgement of this 'true' nature may be sufficient to effect the desired social change. This concern is reinforced by a growing body of research demonstrating belief systems' astounding resilience in the face of facts that contradict them; rather than amending beliefs to fit the new facts, individuals commonly deny or explain away these facts so as to preserve their belief systems (see Lakoff, 2009). Hence, efforts to point out the contradictions at the heart of neoliberal governance strategies may fall on (half-)deaf ears. As in Taussig's analysis of shamanism, evidence of neoliberalism's failure in practice may merely reinforce the fantasy of free trade, evoking the constantly "receding shadow of the real in all its perfection" (1998, page 247).

Conclusion: what is critique today?

In conclusion, we return to the epigraph cited at the outset. Echoing Taussig, Zizek observes that at present "it seems easier to imagine the 'end of the world' than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if global capitalism is the 'real' that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe" (1994, page 1). Elsewhere, Zizek (2000) has reiterated this suggestion that in the contemporary world capitalism indeed seems almost to occupy the place of the Real, setting "a limit to resignification" (page 223) and thus resisting critique as well. This implies a double disavowal of sorts: a simultaneous acknowledgement and denial both of the full severity of the ecological crisis and of the internal contradictions threatening capitalism's future survival.

How, then, is critique to effectively confront this situation? Acknowledging the implications of the public secrecy analytic, Zizek again echoes Taussig in cautioning that "we must avoid the simple metaphors of demasking, of throwing away the veils which are supposed to hide the naked reality. We can see why Lacan, in his Seminar on The Ethic of Psychoanalysis, distances himself from the liberating gesture of saying finally that 'the emperor has no clothes' " (1989, page 25).

Rather, Zizek suggests, the aim of critique must be "to detect, in a given ideological edifice, the element which represents within it its own impossibility" (1989, page 143), to undertake a "symptomal reading" that seeks to "to discern the unavowed bias of the official text via its ruptures, blanks, and slips" (1997, page 10). As Kapoor (2005, page 1205) paraphrases, "this means tracking and identifying ideology's Real--its slips, disavowals, contradictions, ambiguities".

For neoliberal conservation, this Real may manifest as symptom in growing evidence concerning the overwhelming failure of more than thirty years of persistent global efforts to integrate conservation and development by harnessing market mechanisms to commodify in situ natural resources and thereby incentivize their preservation (eg, Fletcher, 2012a; McShane et al, 2011; Wells and McShane, 2004). What this failure may point to, indeed, is nonhuman nature's essential recalcitrance in the face of persistent attempts to make it pay for itself, the eruption of the unruly "Real of nature" (Stavrakakis, 1997a; Swyngedouw, 2011) through the neoliberal fantasy that the same capitalist forces that commonly exacerbate both poverty and ecological destruction can be employed to resolve these selfsame problems. Stavrakakis, for instance, suggests, "What is shown by the current environmental crisis ... is that there are in fact some limits, limits to growth and economic expansion, limits imposed by the Real of nature" (1997a, page 124). Highlighting the mechanisms sustaining disavowal of this realization, our urgent task is to find novel ways to counter this (half-)willful "knowing what not to know" and "accept fully ... the Real in its irreducible constitutivity" (Stavrakakis 1997a, page 128). As Buscher and colleagues (2012) advocate, this entails working to develop [as well as recognize where they already occur--see Sullivan (forthcoming)] alternate modes of being that do not commit such violence, either physical and epistemic, against the 'more-than-human' world in which we live.



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Robert Fletcher

Department of Environment and Development, University for Peace, PO Box 138-6100, Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica; e-mail:

Received 9 July 2012; in revised form 20 October 2012
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