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Guest Post: Presenting the Great REDD Perpetual Motion Machine – Part 2

Dominic Elson is an economic development consultant specialising in forestry and natural resources. REDD-Monitor invited him to write a guest post explaining his views about REDD. Part 1 was posted yesterday and Part 2 is posted below.

Presenting the Great REDD Perpetual Motion Machine – Part 2

An informal disquisition on the origins of grand yet impossible dreams (in two parts), by Dominic Elson.

In part one I set out the argument that REDD is the sort of concept that emerges from a discussion in a pub or bar, and thus has similar features to the ‘perpetual motion’ machine that has captivated dreamers and beer drinkers for hundreds of years. Its grandiose pretensions baffle the unwary sceptic, who finds their criticism dismissed as defeatism and small-mindedness. The best that can be said about REDD is that it has stimulated a discussion about forest economics. Huge reports, massive ODA-funded projects and plenty of work for consultants (full disclosure: I am one of those consultants). In this article I will discuss how this quest for the ultimate development project, whilst charming at the level of an abstract chat in the pub, is becoming a massive distraction, and is pulling resources away from the boring but important work that really matters.

The scale and complexity of REDD reflects the arrogance of what Bill Easterly calls ‘the planners’, believing they can build a plan that will simultaneously meet conservation goals with (carbon) markets, livelihood goals with cash transfers, governance improvement with incentives and thus reduce GHG emissions. The only reason this fallacy has not been exposed, is that it contains something for everyone: conservationists get their high fences and enforcement, neo-liberals perceive the market’s invisible hand, target countries get access to huge pots of grant aid to cover the cost of stuff they should be doing anyway.

One sign that this is an experiment that has gone badly wrong, is the way REDD+ has grown from the relatively svelte Avoided Deforestation (AD), to RED, REDD+, REDD++ until it has become a teetering pile of clamps, test tubes, rubber hoses and rubber bands, like a Heath Robinson (or for Americans, Rube Goldberg) contraption. This is a consequence of its attempt to embrace all constituencies, and thus solve everyone’s pet problems. This is akin to designing our Perpetual Motion machine so that it can not only generate free energy, but also knock up a decent omelette while collecting swallow’s eggs.

At its heart, the quest for Perpetual Motion is based on the belief that the universe is so benign that it has provided us a backdoor to limitless energy and thus a solution to all the world’s woes. REDD+ is from the same utopian eyrie, believing that human society can be understood from high above, and is susceptible to detailed and resolute planning. To be credible, the REDD+ enthusiasts emphasise the market aspect of the scheme, as if this nod to modern liberal sensitivities will distract us from the system of pulleys and levers that is doing the real work here. But our fellow drinkers in the Pub will not be misled. REDD+ is a massive planning machine. It is wrought by those who believe that PLANNING WORKS, and more planning works even better. They ignore how natural landscapes have been shaped by society for millennia, shifting with the inscrutable and overlapping tides of conquest, colonisation, urbanisation, beautification and commodification. They wish to replace this natural immanent process of unfolding history with their own device, and from now on landscapes will behave as they dictate.

This fetish for planning would be bad enough if we all agreed on the goals and the means. That would merely be delusional and reductionist, but at least we would all fail together as friends. But the truth is we are not friends. All large development projects are the work of strangers, some of them with foreign notions about what is best for the poor people of the forest. We have different goals, and very different ideas of how to achieve them. This is one of the reasons why big development projects very rarely meet their goals.

My fellow drinkers, if they have not wandered off to the billiard table by now, may point out that perhaps I am being too demanding of REDD. Am I not making the ‘best’ the enemy of the good? (A cliché I hear rather frequently in REDD conferences). Perhaps mega-planning will work this time. Maybe countries with weak governance will make miraculous improvements. Markets, those arbiters of equilibria, will allocate capital with cool efficiency with never a bubble nor a scintilla of greed. OK, let us allow for these conditions, just as we will give the Perpetual Motionist his absence of entropy and friction. As a CIFOR article pointed out: ‘even a flawed REDD+ is better than no finance for conservation at all’. This gives us our baseline for analysis: is REDD+ really better than nothing?

I believe a moment’s reflection will tell us that where the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable people are at stake, a flawed plan is indeed probably worse than nothing. It misallocates resources, creates a distraction from the real issues and its offset mechanism may even increase GHG emissions rather than reduce them. Its complexity and inherent uncertainty requires expensive accoutrements (such as MRV), which in turn increases transaction cost and thus reduces the amount available for forest communities to invest in their own economic development. Where REDD+ is concerned, ‘transaction cost’ is a polite way of describing money taken by people other than the intended beneficiaries.

But the poor people are not going to go away, and the social challenges to top-down forest policy-making cannot be wished into oblivion by stakeholder analysis and decorative ‘Free Prior and Informed Consent’ baubles. Experience with emissions control (e.g. NoX in California) has shown that “if you don’t attend to the interests of the poor in an efficient way, you’ll just end up attending to those interests in a less efficient way” [Robert Frank]. The forest transition is a social process, and if countries wish to manipulate this transition then they need to start with the poor, introduce rights, keep rapacious investors at bay, and build rural economies that enable marginalised and remote communities to get a couple of steps ahead of the larger development process and claim their stake in the game. Sweden realised this at the beginning of the 20th century, and transformed one of the poorest rural societies in Europe into one of the most prosperous, while doubling the size of the standing forest.

Each country will have a different strategy, but if they proceed from the assumption of local control and diverse rural economies, then they will not be going to far wrong. Of course it will not always work, it will sometimes be messy, and we are still going to lose forest cover in some places. But it will be a natural process of development, taking place at the human scale. Not very interesting for the titans who attend the COP meetings in Valhalla, who may need to find other problems to which they can apply their vast intellects.

Consider, for the last time I promise, our drinking companion’s Perpetual Motion machine. One of the early examples of this was the ‘Water Screw’ designed by Robert Fludd in 1618. It was a response to the perceived problem of energy scarcity that prevailed in the pre-industrial age, where wood was the primary energy source, and European forests were being rapidly denuded. The machine never worked, obviously. But imagine if a global committee had decided in the 17th century that this kind of machine was the answer to poverty and deforestation? Instead of inventing the steam engine, engineers such as Savery and Newcomen would have frittered away their days in search of the impossible. We may never have had an industrial revolution (“and a good thing too” I hear the green lobby exclaim), but we may also have missed out on an extraordinary period of human flourishing. That is the kind of counterfactual speculation that is ideal for the pub.

In the meantime, we are still stuck with REDD, and we may need to sober up soon. There is a possibility that we are so intent on proving to each other how REDD+ could work, that we fail to ask why on earth it ever could work. The conditions required for it to work are so demanding, the social, political and economic rules it needs to break seem so obdurate, that perhaps it should remain a thought experiment over a beer.

Dominic Elson is an economic development consultant specialising in forestry and natural resources. He is the author of the ‘Guide to Investing in Locally Controlled Forestry’ and a founder of the Singapore consulting firm Seventy Three Pte.Ltd. The views expressed here are very much his own.


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  1. Such a brilliant exposition: hardly anything more needs to be said about REDD, though I guess there’s an important place for REDD-Monitor to help the drinkers sober up and repair their miserable hangovers – if, that is, they ever sober up enough to realise just how drunk they have been for the last 5 years or so.

    Chris, can I suggest that you send Mr Elson’s excellent essay to Sir Nicholas Stern, and whilst you are at it, perhaps you could again ask the great man whether he still believes that REDD is the ‘cheapest and easiest’ way to tackle climate change…

  2. The crux of Dominic’s thoughtful and highly entertaining proposal is that what has evolved from the pub banter – RED, REDD, REDD+, REDD++ – is built on an architecture of water screw design principles. That is, apparent technocratic brilliance supplants social and technical feasibility. Alll the REDD variants are utopic in the sense that they do not fundamentally consider what is required for the variant in question to actually work.

    I just wrote a book to be published this month called “Redeeming REDD”, in which many of Dominic’s concerns are echoed. My belief is that the likelihood for “redeeming” REDD is slim, as it rests on essentially flipping the current strategies and approaches on their head, and having people in the so called front line communities where deforestation is most occurring, become central planners and decision makers in avoided deforestation. Of course for this to happen, the REDD world will need to become a bit of a different place, and the incentives to governments to work with local peoples rather than undermining their livelihood security would need to become more of a central concern.

    My personal opinion from the pub I’m now imbibing in, is that it will likely take a visionary/contrarian “impact investor” willing to negotiate with governments and local peoples to establish a competing approach that could be (actually) piloted, in which a more grounded logic based on local realities can create workable, potentially sustainable forest management. From that point on, there will be a role for technocratic intermediaries – intergovernmental institutions, international research centers, donors, big conservation and development NGOs, consultants – to support the core group moving forward. But whatever the next screw put on offer, it will need to reflect far more local insight and design than has been the case up to this point.

  3. I enjoyed Mr. Elson’s colorful description of the intellectualizing pub scene he seemed to be so familiar with from Oxford to Ouagadougou. Not being English, I don’t frequent pubs as much, but when I do, I sometimes notice some folks who rarely join the rowdy table. They just want to enjoy a quiet drink and relax after a hard day’s work before they get some rest to be ready for the tasks they will face the next morning.

    In the REDD world, I liken these folks to people like Dharsono Hartono of the Katingan Project and Todd Lemons from the Rimba Raya Project. Instead of attending conferences, they have been working hard in the trenches for years navigating the complexities of the Indonesian bureaucracy to acquire Ecosystem Restoration licenses, implementing the scientific and methodological procedures needed to obtain international verification process, sitting down with community members in scores of villages and negotiating with potential investors in board rooms.

    According to Mr. Elson, “[t]he best that can be said about REDD is that it has stimulated a discussion about forest economics,” an observation that I’m sure would score points in many discussions in pubs around the world.

    But away from the bar, he might have also noted that Mr. Hartono and Mr. Lemons’ efforts to secure ERC licenses for their projects have so far prevented more than 250,000 hectares of peatlands from being given to oil palm or timber plantations, slowing the trend of peatlands conversion in Kalimantan.

    Unlike REDD consultants (such as myself and Mr. Elson) who earn money from designing MRV system, benefit distribution, etc., Mr. Hartono and Mr. Lemons have invested their own money in these projects, accepting risks in order to put the theory into practice on the ground.

    Perhaps next time Mr. Elson visits a pub he could leave the comfort of his boisterous table, introduce himself to the quiet folks in the corner, have one drink with them, and wake up early in the morning sans hangover to take a closer look at their work in the field.

    Rezal Kusumaatmadja, Senior Advisor of Mazars Starling Resources

  4. Dear Rezal.

    Long time no see.

    Dom’s piece is not a stab at the quiet folks who are trying to make stuff work. It’s a stab at the noisy inflation of the REDD narrative, this peculiar element in the middle of the equation that is supposed to tie the virtual and real parts of the universe together.

    Problems occur when the virtual and the real parts of the universe no longer correspond. In that case the narrative is a fiction and it ceases to be valid. Also worth remembering that there’s a huge industry devoted to replacing facts in the narrative with spin. It’s tempting, and profitable, to fix the readout rather than the problem.

    When I worked in the civil service, tasked to analyse or produce such narratives on a daily basis, I had the following guidance note pinned to my desk:

    1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.
    2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.
    3. It masks the absence of a basic reality.
    4. It is its own pure simulacrum and bears no relation to any reality.

    I found this categorization – adapted from Baudrillard’s – really helpful and recommend it for a review of the various elements of the REDD narrative.

    As regards British pub culture – like yourself I’m no native to Albion – my hands-on in-depth research into this peculiar matter suggests that this is essentially about conjuring a shared vision of their last sane moment in history, when the Empire ruled the waves and “things were right”.

    As a multicultural quarter-cast, I unfortunately lack such comforting ritual or memory. The last shared sane moment in history that I can remember was when my hairy ancestors trotted the mushroom dotted plains of Africa.