The Battleground of Valuation

Established in 2012, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) aspires to be a kind of “IPCC for biodiversity,” tasked with transforming knowledge about global ecosystems into global action to conserve ecosystems. IPBES represents a crystallization of over two decades of aggressive, transnational consensus-building around “ecosystem services” policy discourse, and it has so far enrolled over a hundred member states and a thousand biodiversity and ecosystem services experts to its cause. However, the Platform’s institutionalization has also served as a site of epistemic struggle 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 played an important role in shaping the Platform’s mandate, conceptualization, and overall character.  To quote one assessment author, valuation is a “battleground.” Drawing on embedded organizational ethnography conducted inside IPBES, this paper analyzes efforts by a variety of actors operating within the process to steer the institutionalization of IPBES away from dominant political-economic and epistemic frames. Using a Gramscian analytic approach, I discuss the strategies, ambivalences, 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 articulations. I explore the prospect (and acknowledged limitations) of coalition-building among critical scholars and conservation scientists, and the extent to which the much-maligned vision for ecosystem services as a vehicle for neoliberal conservation can be dislodged and replaced by something more transformative and radical.

This abstract is from a paper I presented to the Association of American Geographers at its 2016 Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Photograph is of the main IPBES offices in Bonn, Germany.