“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

Winter at Ten Forward


In December 2013, I attended the Second Plenary of the newly-established Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Antalya, Turkey. This was an exploratory trip to scope out what became a major component my dissertation research. The atmosphere, as one colleague observed, felt reminiscent of Ten Forward: the lack of any money changing hands (it was in an all-inclusive, self-contained resort complex), the unending food and alcohol provided to delegates (as if replicated), the physical dimensions of the event itself (see photos), and the over-representation of scientist-diplomats gave this event ethnography a peculiar, starbase-like resemblance.

The main plenary hall of IPBES-2
Negotiators divide into break-out groups to resolve a particularly contentious decision regarding stakeholder engagement with IPBES
I found it striking just how much international diplomacy seems to depend on the vagaries of MS Word

Global Environments Summer Academy

In 2013, after finishing my qualifying exam, I traveled to Switzerland to participate in the Global Environments Summer Academy (GESA), hosted by the Center for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern. It was a lot of fun, I made some wonderful friends, and I am continuing to benefit from GESA’s expanding network of alumni and resource people.

I also got to know Bern’s glorious river. On hot days, I observed locals regularly and in large numbers removing their clothes, securing them in dry-bags, and floating themselves to other parts of the city propelled by melting Alpine glacier water.  (Photos by Inanc Tekguc)





Norton et al
Richard Branson, Edward Norton, and Jane Goodall at Rio+20. (Photo by The Yale Globalist.)

In June 2012, I attended the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (better known as Rio+20) as part of a Collaborative Event Ethnography. This research group, which had first been assembled around an NSF grant several years earlier to study the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, had its hands full that summer in Rio.

International environmental conferences (Rio+20 being the largest ever held, attracting over 50,000 participants) represent important sites where elite political actors can try to maneuver preferred policy narratives into widely accepted, authoritative accounts upon which particular policies, governance devices, and institutional structures can arise. While ostensibly structured around the negotiation of agreements between states, my attention at the mega-conference was fixed elsewhere and in fact in the opposite direction.

IISD ENB (folks staring)
Delegates jostle for space at the opening plenary of Rio+20 in Brazil, 2012 (Photo by IISD ENB)

When I began to turn around, my back facing the 30-foot projected Microsoft Word document (I had no idea word processing was such a central part of these processes), I began to recognize where a lot of the real action was taking place. I saw intent, listening audiences, thousands of people, pulled from myriad organizational contexts, roles, and areas of expertise, assembled from around the world, and immersed in the rituals of the event. Here, networking like crazy with one another, they were subjected to a structured social encounter within which certain ideas (i.e. the ones whose influence I’m tracing) could become persuasive, compelling, and accepted within that social space. For some, these events present affective, liminal spaces (akin to summer camp?) where identities get cajoled, new ways of understanding get tried out and adopted, and particular roles get to be performed and reconstituted. In more mundane terms, there can be tremendous pressures at these things; delegates get tired, kept in suspense, jerked back and forth from high hopes to dashed ambitions. Among everything else that these events represent, they are excellent sites for students of environmental politics like myself to access these elite, transnational policy networks: here, as they come together in a concentrated moment in space and time, they become especially visible to researchers.

IMG_0184 IMG_0318

At Rio+20, under these conditions, I got to observe corporate CEOs, UNDP officials, celebrity conservationists, World Bank technocrats, eminent biologists, a series of Prime Ministers, heads of state, at least one prince, the guy from Fight Club, and many others, announce in various venues and in various formats that they’d joined together around the idea of natural capital.

Immersed 12+ hours a day in these self-contained, air-conditioned little worlds, it’s sometimes easy to forget that UN conferences actually happen in places. This image is from a much-needed moment decompressing at one of Rio de Janeiro’s botanical gardens.