Radical Implications

Graphic for Clifford Symposium 2021 themed Climate Change.

I organized my first symposium!

Radical Implications — The climate crisis confronts each of us with urgent questions and bewildering choices about what to do, what to learn, where to go, and who to be at this momentous historical crossroads. In this Clifford Symposium, we will bring together students, faculty, staff, and the wider networks of which Middlebury is a part to discuss our roles as we face increasingly turbulent futures. What can, and should, college be offering to young people as they prepare to join this pivotal moment? How are we all reimagining our disciplines, our communities, our futures? What does it mean for our students — from dancers and economists to marine biologists, elementary school teachers, and computer scientists — to be coming of age in an age of planetary crisis and transformation? And what would an education that is proportionate to the radical implications of the climate crisis look like?

Here’s a quick sketch of the programme (and here‘s the full thing):

Hostile Terrain 94

Jason de Leon’s powerful and haunting exhibit, Hostile Terrain 94, will be installed in McCullough, with opportunities for people to offer reactions and reflections (via sticky notes, writing, drawings, etc.)

Panel Discussion — Reunion

Bill McKibben joins the other co-founders of (all Middlebury alums) to reflect on the past decade of climate activism, on successes and failures, and on what’s changed (and what hasn’t, and what must) in the climate movement.

Keynote — Sarah Jaquette Ray

Sarah Jaquette Ray, author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety and co-creator of the Existential Toolkit for Climate Justice Educators, will address the powerful emotions inherent to facing the climate crisis and how to navigate them.

Panel Discussion — Faculty Perspectives

Carolyn Finney joins an interdisciplinary group of Middlebury faculty to discuss how they are grappling (not always successfully) with the radical implications of what is now unfolding.

Keynote — adrienne marie brown

adrienne maree brown, author of Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism, and co-host of How to Survive the End of the World, will conclude the first day of the symposium by addressing themes of activism, movement strategy, and social change and transformation. 

Keynote — Jane McAlevey

Jane McAlevey, legendary labor organizer and author of Raising Expectations, No Shortcuts, and A Collective Bargain, will share her analysis on what the fight for climate justice can learn from the legacies and continuing struggles of the labor movement.

Keynote — Mary Annaïse Heglar

Mary Annaïse Heglar, climate justice activist, writer, and host of the Hot Take podcast and newsletter, will address the experience of coming online as a young person into such an outrageous situation.

Panel Discussion — Arts & Humanities

A group of Middlebury arts and humanities faculty join together to discuss their perspectives on and approaches to making sense of, relating with, and intervening in the many compounding urgencies intersecting around the climate crisis.

Student Perspectives

In this student-organized event, students themselves will share their own reactions to and reflections on the big questions that define the themes for this symposium; student organizers will help connect these big questions to traditions of activism on this campus and ways of getting involved.

Keynote — Julian Brave Noisecat

Julian Brave NoiseCat, member of the Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen and a descendant of the Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie, is a writer, journalist, and activist. His keynote will conclude the second day of the symposium by helping us connect the dots brought together in the climate crisis (and by this symposium), taking stock of how we got here, where we are, and where we must go (and who is this “we,” anyway?).

Social Gathering

This social event will make space for attendees to blow off steam after engaging with the symposium’s big topics.

Living Life at the Knoll

The Knoll will provide an intentional space for socializing, enjoying the day, and getting on with the task of living lives amid planetary turbulence and transformation.

Coming of age in an age of climate crisis

Margolin 2020_Poster

Last week I got to do a public interview with Naomi Klein, whom we’d invited to Middlebury to give the 2020 Margolin Lecture.

We started by watching A Message from the Future, her short film envisioning what a successful Green New Deal could look like. After being introduced by her friend, Bill McKibben, she delivered a powerful lecture tracing the interlocking crises — social, political, economic, ecological — that define the current moment, and the proportionately integrated forms of struggle needed to confront these crises. We left plenty of time for discussion. I posed a series of questions synthesized from conversations with students exploring what it means to be coming of age in an age of climate breakdown before opening it up to questions from the audience.

The place was packed and pretty lively, with folks squeezed into the aisles, spilling out into the hallways, and ultimately rising for a big standing ovation at the end. Here’s the video from the event:

To continue building on the themes of Klein’s lecture, I also organized a follow-up panel the next week broadly themed around my ongoing project, A Clear and Present Pedagogy. I invited an interdisciplinary group of colleagues including Carolyn Finney (Environmental Studies), James Chase Sanchez (Writing & Rhetoric), Jamie McCallum (Sociology), Kirsten Coe (Biology), and Tara Affolter (Education), to engage in dialogue around the following prompt:

The climate crisis confronts each of us, including and especially young people, with urgent questions and bewildering choices about how to live, who to be, what to learn, where to go and what to do at this momentous historical crossroads.

Building on Naomi Klein’s Margolin Lecture from the previous week, this event will bring together students and faculty to discuss how and why college (i.e. what we’re all doing right now) might matter, or might come to matter, as we confront increasingly turbulent planetary futures. What can (and arguably should) college offer to young people as they prepare to join this pivotal historical moment? What does it mean for our students — from dancers and economists to marine biologists, elementary school teachers, and computer scientists — to be coming of age in an age of climate catastrophe? And what would an education that is proportionate to the dire urgencies and radical implications of the climate crisis look like? 

I was excited to learn that the student organizing collective I’d been working with on this event had nominated two freshman students to represent them, one of whom produced this sick poster, and both of whom crushed it at the event with their thoughtful and earnest (and challenging!) questions.

Poster - A Clear & Present Pedagogy

First they came for the low-lying island states…

Climate Ethics

I moderated a student-organized panel discussion several weeks ago about making the best, or maybe just making sense, of a bad situation.

I was joined by Bill McKibben (co-founder of and Middlebury’s very own environmental scholar-activist in residence), Rupert Read (an environmental philosopher and key proponent of Extinction Rebellion), and Kim Cobb (an oceanographer and lead author of the grim climate report released by the IPCC late last year).

The panel discussion starts around 20 minutes into the video, following some introductory comments from myself and President Laurie Patton. My prepared remarks are copied below the video.

“Welcome everyone, and thank you President Patton for those remarks.

It wouldn’t be quite right to say that it is my pleasure to be with you here today, given the circumstances — specifically, the sort of preposterously grave seriousness that defines our subject matter. But that kind of incongruity is just how we have to do it in environmental studies these days. Occupational hazard.

It goes without saying that our subject tonight is positively rife with trigger warnings. You read the blurb.

But that is precisely the topic of our discussion — that is, facing up to certain things, which we will try to name and to wrestle with together over the next hour and a half: with earnestness, with courage, and with all the compassion we can muster as we confront the experiences of discomfort, and anger, and heartbreak, and fear, and that grasping at that perennial question of “what is to be done?”

And, all the rest of the things that come with thinking deeply about today’s accelerating planetary-scale environmental transformations and the ongoing decimations of human and non-human life encompassed in them.

As we let those “revolutionary implications” President Patton just gestured at sink in, when we really allow ourselves to dwell on such a recognition, it can in my experience begin to feel a bit overwhelming. And yet it is vital and so very necessary.

Such acknowledgements have this habit of demolishing all kinds of rarely examined, taken-for-granted idle presumptions about the future, containing these bewildering ramifications. It forces serious re-evaluations — like in the most practical of terms! — of how exactly you’re supposed to understand your place on what you’re now told is a dying world, what can (and should) be done about it, and basic decisions about how to live and find your way in it.

So what are we facing? Well, there’s global warming. And I assume many of you have by now seen those scary hockey-stick shaped graphs depicting something more particular than just ‘global warming’. What they depict is a runaway, point-of-no-return, kind of a problem: that “doom loop” of mutually reinforcing positive feedbacks and chain reactions, from melting permafrost and ocean acidification to ecosystem collapses and disappearing ice sheets, together with their fire-and-brimstone manifestations — the escalating disruptions of wind, fire, floods, drought, extreme heat, anoxic dead zones, and myriad other biblical-sounding forms of chaos arising from all these processes working together in concert.

So what we now call “climate change” is a capacious term whose aspects are sprawling. Thus, our conversation today is going to be a bit more pointed in some important ways which we’ll move through one-by-one, including:

  • How to negotiate — in an embodied, creaturely sort of way — the wrenching, affective emotional gut-punch, the grief and mourning that comes with facing the present. We often get lost in climate models and policy cycle diagrams and whatnot;
  • The pedagogical challenges for us here in places like Middlebury — as students, as educators, as those struggling to find a meaningful outlet for these anxieties: where and how, exactly, to ‘make it count’ at this dire, eleventh-hour, all-hands-on-deck, “Hail Mary” kind of a situation;
  • and of course, questions of hope, what it is (or isn’t), why we need it (or don’t) and where we might go about finding such a thing;
  • and others (our students came up with some fantastic questions which I am eager to hear our panelists explore).

With your permission, I’m going to use my prerogative as moderator to highlight one particular theme, which centers questions of injustice and inequality at the heart of our understanding of this momentous historic crossroads, our sense of its character, of how we got here, and where that all leads.

An anecdote. I will never forget the day right after the 2016 election, walking in a daze through the Berkeley campus, where I was a grad student at the time. I found myself in this impromptu rally that had spontaneously formed, growing into this big crowd on Sproul Plaza in the middle of campus full of demoralized freaked-out people. I remember some faculty members setting up what looked like a karaoke machine, attached to a portable amp, taking turns holding up the amp, and taking turns giving voice to the anguish and solidarity many were feeling in that moment gazing into an uncertain future.

I remember a Jewish-German historian who took the mic to read us a poem. Many of you will know it. It was by Martin Niemoller, remarking on the disastrous complicities of those swept up in the early 20th century’s ascendant fascisms, culminating in wars and genocides and devastation: a haunting admonishment to those who could have but for whatever reasons didn’t do something when they had the chance.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

While her immediate point was clear — of the urgency of solidarity, of mutual aid, of protecting the most vulnerable against what was about to happen — I sensed in that moment, in her decision to share this poem, that she was also giving voice to the analogous forms of violence being promised by climate change.

Standing in that crowd, I involuntarily began to fill in other verses in my head:

Then they came for the low-lying island states, and I did not speak out — Because I did not live in a low-lying island state

Then they came for Puerto Rico, and I did not speak out — Because I did not live in Puerto Rico

Then they came for swaths of Sub-Saharan Africa, and I did not speak out — Because I did not live in Sub-Saharan Africa

This is what Naomi Klein stressed in a recent speech (commemorating the work of Edward Said) where she emphasized the urgency of anti-colonial, anti-imperialist thinkers in apprehending the climate crisis. Drawing on these thinkers, she stresses how certain places, and certain people, come to be “othered” — whether by race or class, gender or geography — designated, in other words, as disposable: as worth sacrificing. Because stopping climate change at 2 degrees Celsius — a point beyond which those “other people,” those “other places,” sink forever beneath the waves, succumb to endless storms, or cook in unsurvivable heat — is simply “too expensive” for those most insulated from such consequences and those who are, simultaneously, the most responsible for shoving all those greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere in the first place. “Let them drown,” Klein paraphrases.

I invite you to ponder these brutal exclusions and how intrinsic they are to the climate crisis. They force us to reckon with these very real, very acute forms of violence, with how we are all implicated in different ways in these violences, and with the disturbing realization — especially for those of us just starting to face it — of our own forms of complicity and consent in this decisive moment to a system which has these predictable consequences and really, desperately, must be made to turn out otherwise.

While this othering has always had the genocidal implications that it does, the scope of that sacrificial “other” now finally threatens to widen and to engulf everyone and everything — to expand and encompass even those who have regarded themselves safe and protected from it (for now, perhaps). This logic — the “sacrifice zone mentality” as Klein puts it — not only expresses the worst dehumanizing rationalities that have been so central to colonialism, to white supremacy, to empire, to so many forms of domination and oppression and violence: it now also virtually guarantees the collective ruin of all.

You can imagine that final verse:

Then [our overheating planet] came for me — and then there was no one left to speak for me.

But! While it’s very late in the game, this observation only heightens the urgency of finally overcoming precisely this complacency, of finally facing what needs to be faced, and finally figuring out how to make a break for it together before the moment passes.

Our task is to recover from this predicament something that is analytically honest and rigorous in its reckoning of where things stand — not flinching, not averting our gaze, but looking right into it — yet, also, recovering from it something that is more than paralysis, more than nihilism, more than despair: the basis for meaningful action.”

“Right…the Anthropocene”

downloadI recently appeared on Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State. I helped introduce the idea of environmental justice and highlighted the blind spots that come with universalizing narratives like that of the so-called “Anthropocene.”

Click here to listen.

The whole episode is pretty engaging and focused on the question, “How Is Climate Change Affecting Vermont, Right Now?” During our interview, I discovered that the host, Angela Evancie, is a Midd alum who remembers being around during the formation of back in the day. She explained how each episode of her show is structured around a question posed by a member of the community. It was great to see how artfully her team structured the story and just to listen all of the other interviews with various experts, and assorted Vermonters, narrating their experiences with the escalating disruptions of global warming.


A bit hard to tell whose signature is whose.

I am pleased to announce that I submitted my dissertation last Friday to UC Berkeley — December 15, 2017. In practical terms, that means I have concluded my doctoral program and am one piece of paper — and a lollipop as per university policy — away from receiving my PhD. Below is the abstract for “Mainstreaming Natural Capital: The Rise of Ecosystem Services in Biodiversity Conservation.”

This dissertation investigates the growing influence of “ecosystem services” (ES) ideas in biodiversity conservation. Once an esoteric neologism, ES refers to the conceptual framework and now-burgeoning field of research and practice dedicated to analyzing in measurable, often monetary terms the various “services” provided by nature to people. Over the past two decades, diverse communities of practitioners around the world have increasingly come to accept, and even to embrace, the emergent policy discourse formed around ES. In this dissertation, I explain how the concept of ES has come to gain such widespread currency among conservationists, what is at stake in re-envisioning biodiversity in this manner, and what the contemporary embrace of ES can tell us about the changing politics of conservation.

I explore these questions through sustained, close-quarters engagements with some of the idea’s core champions. I provide a thickly-described account of the politics of ES through the experiences and perspectives of those working at the forefront of efforts to “mainstream” its tenets across diverse contexts of environmental governance. My analysis draws on encounters with ES practitioners operating through two prominent initiatives: (a) the Natural Capital Project and (b) the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Through organizational-ethnographic research embedded with ES experts, I examine concerted efforts to institutionalize ES in conservation (and beyond) as the prevailing framework for making sense of, advocating for, and ostensibly saving nature.

I describe a campaign seeking to re-assert conservation’s viability by aligning it to ‘fit’ more neatly within dominant discursive, institutional, and political-economic orders. In this context, ES provides an important operational means of enacting these re-alignments. I portray the organizational dynamics, representational practices, and expert subjects constitutive of these efforts and draw on these findings to develop three main lines of argument: (1) the micro-social practices associated with ES are deeply implicated in the enactment of pronounced institutional shifts in contemporary conservation; (2) one of the most major consequences arising from ES relates to how it shapes the political subjectivities of those who practice it in part by internalizing a depoliticized theory of change; and (3) ES remains a contingent site of struggle, amenable to re-negotiation, with the potential to impede, but also to contribute, to more transformative, liberatory purposes other than those now enrolling it.

The dissertation will likely get posted online within a couple of months by UC Berkeley. I would be happy to share copies prior to its formal release for those interested. Thank you to everyone who played a part in this six-year journey: colleagues, friends, family, and, of course, the many people who chose to participate in this project as interviewees, key informants, and “research subjects.” It really does take a village.

To monetise or not to monetise?

monbiot_and_juniperThe debate over whether to put an economic value on nature has spilled into another year. George Monbiot (who recently went for the jugular on natural capital) and Tony Juniper (former Executive Director of Friends of the Earth and author of What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?) are two prominent and opposing voices in this ongoing ideological struggle over conservation. The debate was hosted by New Networks for Nature in Stamford, UK, last November. They go straight to town on each other’s arguments. The exchange appears to have successfully ruffled feathers among many attendees, as the debate spirals out from the esoteric neologism of “natural capital” per se to what is symbolized by it, what is at stake in its broader acceptance, and what to make of the ethical dilemmas, strategic outlook, and political possibilities it expresses.

The debate is watchable here (Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3), courtesy of Cambridge TV.


How much is that tiger in the jungle?

The main IPBES offices in Bonn, Germany

Across virtually all indicators, biodiversity loss continues to worsen at a planetary scale. From species extinction and habitat loss to deforestation and desertification, from overharvesting and invasive species to pollution and climate change, conservationists perceive an increasingly dire situation. Over the past two decades, this growing sense of socio-ecological crisis and institutional failure among conservationists has prompted many to look with a renewed urgency toward new concepts, new strategies, new allies, and ultimately a new way forward for conservation.

Since the 1990s, the conceptual framework of ecosystem services has been asserted as offering that new way forward. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) defines ecosystem services simply as “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems.” The concept expresses in measurable, often monetary terms the economic values encompassed in biodiversity: mangos, timber, drinking water, flood protection, weekend hikes, pharmaceuticals, and so on ad infinitum. The MA sorted these services into what became a classic four-category typology: (i) provisioning services like food, fresh water, or fibre, (ii) regulating services like climate, flood, and disease attenuation, (iii) supporting services like nutrient cycling, primary productivity, and soil formation, and (iv) cultural services such as aesthetic, spiritual, educational, or recreational fulfilment.

Together, these categories express a particular way of making sense of nature, a framework for reimagining biodiversity that tries to systematize and quantify the value of the services that ecosystems deliver. By rendering nature economically legible, proponents of ecosystem services endeavour to make previously taken for granted “invisible” costs and benefits related to ecological change finally and incontrovertibly “visible.”

The emergence of ecosystem services discourse has sustained, and been sustained by, a rapidly growing community of research and practice that seeks to disseminate this framework into the politics, cultures, and choices of global conservation and development governance. Diverse communities of practitioners around the world have responded and increasingly come to accept and even to embrace the concept: ecologists and economists, policymakers, activists of varying stripes, intergovernmental bureaucrats and business leaders are together learning to think about “nature” as stocks of “natural capital” assets generating flows of valuable services. A discernable vision for environmental governance, articulated through the vocabulary of natural capital and ecosystem services, now permeates international dialogues and discussions. Amidst growing concern that traditional conservation approaches have “failed,” conservationists now turn to ecosystem services to save biodiversity.

As the influence of ecosystem services thinking has grown, political clashes around it have also intensified: what does it mean to put a monetary value on nature? The rise of ecosystem services has provoked tremendous debate among environmental advocates.

Proponents of ecosystem services highlight the potential of ecosystem services to strengthen the legitimacy of arguments advocating for the protection of nature, to improve tools for rational decision-making (such as cost-benefit or trade-off analysis), and to operationalize policy instruments such as forest carbon markets and a wide array of PES schemes. For its supporters, ecosystem services promises new arguments (e.g. the ‘business case for nature’) new allies (e.g. powerful constituencies amenable to market discourse), new resources (e.g. public and private finance streams enabled by ecosystem services arrangements), and a powerful framework for aligning conservation with the multiple priorities and creation of a “green economy.”

Yet critics raise strategic, methodological, ethical, and political concerns. They perceive ecosystem services as a dangerously narrow re-conceptualization of the aims of biodiversity conservation. The theoretical underpinnings of ecosystem services, they argue, fail to adequately address difficult-to-quantify non-market values in biodiversity, which, as one (in)famous critique argued, “is to imply—intentionally or otherwise—that nature is only worth conserving when it can be made profitable.” They charge that abandoning the goal of saving nature for nature’s sake, brushes aside intrinsic values, ethical duties, and the sense of aesthetic or spiritual connection to living things historically ingrained in conservation’s ideals.

Politically, critics disparage the concept as complicit with, if not an outright vehicle for, the commodification of nature and the neoliberalization of environmental governance. It represents, they argue, a nearly archetypal example of the “neoliberalization” of environmental governance which both reflects and serves to reinforce an ongoing re-purposing of conservation around global capitalism. In short, these critics argue, the paradigm is as beguiling as it is pernicious–a “prelude to the greatest privatization since enclosure”–it amounts to “ced[ing] the natural world to the forces wrecking it” and a “neoliberal road to ruin” that will exacerbate social inequalities, result in further dispossession and marginalization, and accelerate the causes of environmental degradation.

As these controversies continue to swirl around the concept, the idea of ecosystem services has already manifested around the world in a range of forms including Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) programs; natural capital accounting standards (e.g. the UN’s recently-revised System for Environmental-Economic Accounting, SEEA); new academic journals (e.g. “Ecosystem Services,” inaugurated in 2012); and a proliferation of new research initiatives and communities of practice (e.g. the Natural Capital Project, Ecosystem Services Partnership, ecoSERVICES, ValuES, OpenNESS, OPERAs, Invaluable, Katoomba Group, DIVERSITAS, Ecosystem Marketplace, etc.). The concept is now firmly rooted in global biodiversity research networks and agendas; among national and sub-national state environmental bureaucracies in both developed and developing countries; in the communications, organizational development strategies, and project planning of the conservation establishment (e.g. in the so-called ‘big three’ conservation organizations, World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International, among many others); in various intergovernmental processes undertaken through the United Nations; in the World Bank (e.g. in their Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services, or WAVES, global partnership); and in other large multilateral science-policy initiatives such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) completed in 2005, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) established in 2007, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) established in 2012.


IPBES represents one prominent crystallization of these past two decades of transnational consensus-building around ecosystem services policy discourse. The process has enrolled over a hundred member states (124 at present) and a thousand biodiversity and ecosystem services experts to its cause. IPBES aspires to be a kind of ‘IPCC for biodiversity’, tasked with further transforming knowledge about global ecosystems into global action to conserve ecosystems. Analogously to the IPCC, IPBES is intended to synthesize current scientific knowledge (alongside an intriguing commitment to integrating other knowledge systems) regarding biodiversity and ecosystem services and to disseminate that knowledge through a series of comprehensive assessments. Still a young organization, IPBES has focused on defining and operationalizing its mandate, building capacity for its core functions, and coordinating the expert groups responsible for preparing its first set of assessments, which will be reviewed for approval by member states at the fourth IPBES Plenary (IPBES-4) in February 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Understood as a social process, initiatives like IPBES represent a pivotal nexus of actors, institutions, and ideas. Its constitutive processes—in particular, meetings—assemble these elements together in observable moments in space and time which connect through transnational policy networks to other such moments. It is through such sites that global environmental governance is produced and the project to “mainstream” ecosystem services is mobilized.

IISD ENB (folks staring)
Delegates take in the opening ceremony to Rio+20 (2012). Photo by IISD ENB.

These sites are in important ways also uniquely visible and accessible to researchers and other stakeholders. Using IPBES as one of its case studies, and building on previous experience as part of a “Collaborative Event Ethnography” research team studying these dynamics, my dissertation analyzes the rise of ecosystem services through the perspectives, experiences, and dilemmas of its advocates. In this approach, each of the various ‘moments’ that comprise IPBES can be thought of as

a node in a network of global environmental governance: they are sites of negotiation and decision-making in ongoing, broader policy-making processes, where we can examine how ideas about conservation emerge, gain traction, and are contested, debated, and traded-off. By attending such events as a group of researchers, we gain insights into the processes at stake in determining what conservation is, who participates in such processes, and with what consequences [link]

Applying this approach to IPBES opens up some interesting possibilities, including the prospect of directly studying the ways in which the Platform’s institutionalization has served as a site of epistemic struggle—an arena of ongoing contestation where broader tensions among conservationists over the political meaning and political implications of ecosystem services are literally being negotiated. These clashes surrounding ecosystem services—particularly over how to accommodate divergent approaches to value and valuation—quickly manifested within the process and have played an important role in shaping the Platform’s mandate, conceptualization, and overall character. The negotiation of these tensions are central to my analysis.


Using participant observation and embedded organizational ethnographic research inside IPBES, my research examines efforts by a variety of actors operating within the process to steer its institutionalization away from dominant political-economic and epistemic frames. Extending theoretical frameworks from political ecology, science and technology studies, and critical and sociological variants of institutional theory, I seek to understand the strategies, ambivalences, challenges, and counter-hegemonic potential of these actors as they try to contest the character of this emerging institution and wrest the political meaning of ecosystem services discourse from its more narrowly economistic integuments and neoliberal articulations. I explore the prospect (and acknowledged challenges) of coalition-building among activists, critical scholars, and conservation scientists, and the extent to which the apparently ascendant yet much-maligned vision for ecosystem services as a vehicle for neoliberal conservation can be dislodged and replaced by something more alternative, more progressive, and more radical.

Excitingly, these questions remain subject to ongoing contestation, contingent upon continuing political, epistemic, and institutional negotiations both within and outside of the IPBES process. As IPBES struggles to bend—without breaking—traditional science-policy routines and involve diverse value systems, counter-hegemonic politics, and social scientists capable (sometimes) of translating these incongruent knowledges into the process in a meaningful and robust way, those traditionally wary of the perils of ecosystem services face a conundrum: whether, how, and in what ways to engage this experiment. Does participation risk co-optation, perpetuating the underlying power relations and reinforcing the political-economic conditions that have so effectively disciplined conservation in recent decades and contributed to the turn to ecosystem services? Or, does the institutional expression of ecosystem services discourse constituted by IPBES perhaps represent something more mutable and ripe with possibility: a conjunctural moment and window of opportunity that can be appropriated and leveraged toward transformative change?

This research was initiated and continues in large part thanks to generous financial assistance from GDF (through a GESA Alumni Innovation Fund Grant), and with valuable support from fellow GESA alumni Katja Heubach. This blog post was prepared for GESA and will appear on their website.



Policy narratives in action

I have, over the course of my doctoral research, increasingly come to appreciate the power of story-telling practices in environmental politics. I have also enjoyed engaging my students in discussions around them. There’s this story, for instance, narrated by UNEP Goodwill Ambassador (and guy from Fight Club) Edward Norton:

And this one, produced for The Natural Capital Project:

The structure of these narratives have been easy for my students to identify, highlighting what context is established, what kind of problem is framed, and what solution is posited. Indeed, once encouraged to spot these aspects of the environmental texts swirling around us, it’s hard to unsee. These particular clips serve as windows into the forms of reason driving the “economic turn” in conservation, which my dissertation seeks to analyze, and they provide revealing glimpses into the kinds of work effectively mobilized discourses can do.

“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).

Summer in a science palace


I spent the summer of 2014 working with colleagues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) outside Vienna. I began content analysis to understand the evolution of ecosystem services discourse among conservationists, an analysis of the scale and scope of profit-driven finance actually flowing into biodiversity-related projects, and a social network analysis to map ecosystem services’ transnational network (or “epistemic community”) of practitioners.

Housed in a former Habsburg palace, IIASA was formed in 1972 by a handful of countries—most notably the United States and the USSR—to help neutralize Cold War tensions and foster international scientific cooperation. I visited as part of their summer research program for young[ish] scientists. Based on chats with some of IIASA’s longer-term personnel, there’s a book waiting to be written about this place which may or may not include certain spy agencies abusing their photocopying privileges.

I’ve enclosed a couple photos of “Science Diplomacy” in action.

difficult equation  science diplomacy