By Kean Birch
In Neoliberal Bio-Economies? Kean Birch analyses the co-construction of markets and natures in the emerging bio-economy as a policy response to global environmental change. The bio-economy is an economic system characterized by the use of plants and other biological materials rather than fossil fuels to produce energy, chemicals, and societal goods. Over the last decade or so, numerous countries around the world have developed bio-economy strategies as a potential transition pathway to a low-carbon future.
Whether this is achievable or not remains an open question, one which this book seeks to answer. In addressing this question, Kean Birch draws on over ten years of research on the bio-economy around the world, but especially in North America. He examines what kinds of markets and natures are being imagined and constructed in the pursuit of the bio-economy, and problematizes the idea that this is being driven by neoliberalism and the neoliberalization of nature(s).
- Distinguishes neoliberalism as key critical trope of contemporary political economy
- Explores the Bio-economy as a future sustainable society
- Analyzes markets and natures as co-produced
Lecture by Kean Birch on Bio-Economies
Table of Contents + Chapter Abstracts
Chapter abstracts have been copied from the book's pages on SpringerLink.
- Introduction - Climate change threatens the future of humanity, unless we can find ways to solve a number of pressing issues. We need to transform our societies and economies quickly into low-carbon versions of themselves, or we’ll end up facing societal and economic collapse, international and civil war, and environmental catastrophe. How we go about transforming our societies and economies, however, is a choice we have to make. One choice we could make is to promote and support the transition to a bio-economy—an economy underpinned by the use of biological material rather than fossil fuels in the production of energy, materials, chemicals, and so on. This chapter provides the outline for my analysis of this transition, focusing specifically on the development of advanced biofuels in Canada as a case study.
- Neoliberal Bio-Economies? - Currently, solutions to environmental problems, like climate change, are primarily framed in terms of market-based instruments or approaches, relying on private interests and incentives to drive environmental change. Such market-based solutions are increasingly criticized as examples of ‘neoliberalism’ - the installation of markets as the only or primary institution in society. Drawing on a range of scholarly literature, this chapter introduces the concept of neoliberalism and outlines how it is used to analyse the insertion of markets in environmental processes and systems. I critically engage with this ‘neoliberal natures’ literature in order to problematize the notion that markets are some sort of aberration of nature. Rather, I stress the need to frame these issues within an approach that incorporates political-economic and material processes in order to understand phenomenon like the bio-economy.
- Background to Emerging Bio-Economies - The bio-economy is a contested concept, but it generally refers to the replacement of fossil fuels with biological matter (e.g. plants) in the production of energy, materials, and chemicals. As a concept, it has emerged over the last decade or so as a policy strategy promising a win-win-win solution to environmental problems like climate change. For example, the bio-economy promises to resolve environmental problems, create jobs and economic growth, and ensure energy security. As a result, the bio-economy concept has spread around the world, being taken up by a range of countries, in different ways, as a viable transition pathway. This chapter introduces the reader to the bio-economy and the specific example I use in the rest of the book, namely, liquid biofuels.
- Bio-Economy Policy Visions - A growing body of research outlines the important role played by policy visions, master narratives, imaginaries, and other discourses in the emergence of and support for different bio-economies around the world. In this chapter, I outline the different and competing policy visions in the Canadian bio-economy as a way to analyse the fragmented nature of the Canadian policy frameworks designed to support the enactment of the bio-economy. As such, I argue that these policy visions are not simply descriptive discourses, they are also generative or performative in that they direct policy attention, policy support, and policy funding towards particular conceptions of the bio-economy. Here, policy visions are frequently entwined with ‘neoliberal’ narratives about the benefits of markets, although the relationship between these narratives and visions of sustainable transitions often come into conflict with one another.
- Legitimating Bio-Economies - While discourse provides one angle to analyse the development of bio-economies, it does not address the political-economic materialities of bio-based energy, products, and chemicals. The biophysical characteristics of these things both enable and limit the development of different bio-economies. This chapter analyses how certain forms of bio-economy are legitimated by their political-economic materialities. In the Canadian context, this has involved support for ‘drop-in’ biofuels, which are compatible with prevailing institutions, infrastructures, and value chains (e.g. combustion engine, automobiles, suburbia, etc.). Drop-in biofuels legitimate a particular form of the bio-economy that is politically popular because it need not entail a wholesale (and expensive) reconfiguration of societies and economies.
- Material Limits to Bio-Economies - Although the political-economic materialities of biological matter enable certain bio-economies, they limit others. As a result, those trying to create a bio-economy, as many countries are trying to do, can face a range of unexpected or unintended constraints. This chapter explores these material limits to bio-economies by analysing the enactment of bio-economy strategies through ‘market development policies’ for advanced biofuels in Canada, such as product labelling, standard setting, subsidies, mandates, and feedstock supply contracts. I examine how markets are instituted, reflecting on the way that this can and does conflict with the idea that nature is being neoliberalized. As such, the chapter problematizes the idea that neoliberalism is a simple extension of markets, highlighting how different materialities derail or constrain the installation of markets.
- Co-Constructing Markets and Natures in Bioeconomies - Although it’s possible to identify how political-economic materialities enable and constrain different bio-economies, it is also important to analyse how markets and natures are co-constructed through the interaction between environmental and economic processes. Rather than assume that markets or natures are some pristine system or process, this chapter aims to show what bio-economies are created as the result of nature-economy relations. It analyses advanced biofuel value chains in Canada to show how biomass is constructed as a resource, how conversion technologies are framed, and how distribution is inflected by biophysical and political-economic qualities of biofuels. Again, my aim is to unpack the claim that nature is being increasingly neoliberalized.
- Conclusions: Alternative Bio-Economies - In the conclusion, I reflect on the implications of the previous chapters by returning to the theoretical concerns I raise throughout the book about the identification of a specifically ‘neoliberal’ bio-economy. Part of this critical engagement with neoliberalism involves identifying alternative bio-economies, reflecting different bio-economies that are not underpinned by market principles.
About Kean Birch
Kean Birch is associate professor at the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University. On his staff profile he writes: "I am particularly interested in understanding technoscientific capitalism. As such, my research focuses on the restructuring and transformation of the economy, technoscience and environment. I draw on a range of perspectives from science & technology studies, economic geography, and economic sociology." He is the author of A Research Agenda for Neoliberalism (Edgar Elgar, 2017).