My doctoral dissertation (“Mainstreaming Natural Capital”) 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 dedicated to analyzing in measurable, often monetary terms the range of valuable “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 framework of ES. In this dissertation, I examine 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 now 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 practically instituting 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 macro-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.
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The photo above is from IPBES-3 in Bonn, Germany, January 2015.