“Money can grow on trees”

I sometimes wonder how much my research questions remain salient for actual environmentalists and practitioners. Then I get to watch dialogues like this, which remind me that controversies around making a “business case for nature” continue to figure centrally in broader debates about conservation’s future.

The exchange is remarkable not so much because of the novelty of the arguments, which are well-worn, but in their sheer spectrum performed together alongside and in friction with one another. The debate, and the positioning of its speakers, feels reflective of the tenor of ecosystem services discourse more generally. Peter Kareiva (The Nature Conservancy) and Jeremy Oppenheim (McKinsey & Company) begin by delivering the familiar argument: conservation must modernize by re-tooling and re-aligning itself at a broad level around increasingly dominant business actors, buiness practices, and business priorities. “That adversarial position,” Kareiva laments, “If business is an adversary of nature, nature doesn’t stand a chance.” Given the opening framing by the moderator, suggesting a false dichotomy between “capitalism” and “nature,” I was surprised by the relatively uncompromising critical stance of Lucy Siegle and especially Nick Dearden, who argued “Putting a price on nature is exactly the wrong way to go. It is further commodifying, further marketizing those things that we should actually be un-commodifying and un-monetizing.” Dearden later returned to this point on economic valuation, concluding emphatically, “I am firmly against this. […] I think we’ve really got to kill this idea that this is the way to save the environment.”

The debate features some customary talking past each other with different speakers using different understandings of the words they are using. But they also tackle head on some of the underlying contradictions that ecosystem services arguments pivot around. The debate wanders through a variety of core issues in ecosystem services debates, from the the prospect of mobilizing private investment for conservation, to the ostensible failure of the 20th-century conservation movement and consequent “need” for a new way forward, and whether concepts and normative precepts in business and economics can provide it. The speakers manage to squeeze in more than a few zingers (Kareiva quips, “Money can’t buy you love? Money can buy you nature!”)

I was especially interested in Tony Juniper’s performance (formerly Executive Director of Friends of the Earth), which worked throughout the debate in a thoughtful and conciliatory role, smoothing over tensions, struggling to reconcile the diverse logics implicit in the arguments swirling around him. I interpret this kind of discursive work as critical to understanding the ways in which the ecosystem services framework has been unfolding among different communities of conservation practice. In contrast to the event’s title, “Money Can Grow on Trees,” Juniper’s use of economic concepts draws on ecosystem services’ other register–the economic Rosetta Stone–which allows translation between the diverse and sometimes antagonistic constituencies engaged in conservation (which was recently adopted as a kind of banner metaphor for the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).