VIFF Film Review: Banking Nature

Photo: Vancouver International Film Festival.

Photo: Vancouver International Film Festival.

Fresh air, clean water, and a healthy environment: priceless, right? Perhaps not. 

Banking Nature asks its viewers to confront the vitally important, yet somewhat discomforting, question of whether we’ve sold-out Mother Nature. By putting a price on services that nature provides to humans – like the purification of air by forests - are we strategically embracing market logic to prevent future environmental harm? Or are we paving a dangerous path toward the commodification of nature by profit-driven corporations and banks?

Dominated by interview footage contrasting the viewpoints of advocates and detractors of environmental valuation, Banking Nature spans the fundamental divide between those who consider nature to be intrinsically priceless, and those who think environmental pricing and markets are necessary to reduce and prevent ongoing harm. The former considers any attempts at market valuation to be morally misguided and practically ineffective, and the latter cites the historical failures of traditional approaches to environmental conservation.

To get a sense of the importance and magnitude of this debate, consider bees. If bees no longer pollenated food crops, and humans were paid to do the work instead, it would cost an additional 200 billion dollars per year to produce food for the world. The film suggests that losses in ecosystem services, due to environmental degradation, amount to a staggering 2 to 4 trillion dollars per year. These are services that are currently provided to us by nature, for free. The implication is that as humans continue to degrade the environment, these services will become more and more scarce and may disappear altogether, causing disastrous consequences.

This is where the logic of environmental pricing makes its case. If we put a price on these services, similar to any other service you might buy in a market, there might be an opportunity to save the environment and turn a healthy profit. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, maybe.

The film documents cases of failure and manipulation of these market mechanisms, using examples of endangered species ‘mitigation banks’ in the United States, carbon credit offsets in Europe, and numerous others. My impression is that the balance of evidence here was shifted toward highlighting the flaws of environmental pricing and failed to mention some inspiring historical successes. For example, a significant success story is the use of a ‘polluter pays’ pricing mechanism, called cap and trade, in the United States to address the acid rain problem of the 1990s.

It’s here I’m reminded of what is crucially important for the environmental outcomes of these market-based tools: policy details. How governments construct and enforce policies and regulations for environmental pricing, and not necessarily the mechanisms themselves, will ultimately dictate their potential for success. When considering the case studies that were used, I couldn’t help but think that film didn’t do justice to some of these important nuances. Overall, however, Banking Nature presents a balanced expression of opinions and commendably avoids explicitly vilifying environmental pricing advocates.

For those of you interested in effecting meaningful environmental change in the world, Banking Nature will cause you to re-think what tools are available to help to achieve your environmental objectives. Whether you embrace working from within the current economic system, or prefer targeting you efforts from the outside in, the film will leave you better equipped to reflect on the effectiveness of these strategies. There are no black and white conclusions, but the film presents a thoughtful and fair dialogue that should resonate with viewers from a diversity of backgrounds and value-orientations.