The Rise of Ecosystem Services

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.

Click here if you would like to download a humongous pdf of my dissertation.

The photo above is from IPBES-3 in Bonn, Germany, January 2015.

UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA 2013)

In 1997, researchers estimated the total economic value of the “services” provided by the world’s ecosystems – from flood-mitigating wetlands and precipitation-inducing tropical forests to carbon-storing tundra and fisheries-supporting coral reefs – at around US $33 trillion: nearly double global economic output that year. Cited now over fifteen thousand times in the literature (and counting), this dollar figure heralded exponential growth in the field of ecosystem services science and signaled a broad shift in how conservationists came to frame their work. Diverse communities of practitioners around the world have come to accept and even to embrace the language of ecosystem services: 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. The concept has 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  System for Environmental-Economic Accounting, SEEA); new private sector coalitions (e.g. the business-led Natural Capital Protocol, the finance-led Natural Capital Finance Alliance); 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 PartnershipecoSERVICES, ValuES, OpenNESS, OPERAs, OPPLAInvaluable, Katoomba GroupEcosystem Marketplace, BES-Net, EQUIVAL, DIVERSITAS, which was absorbed into Future Earth, and more).

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Graph of yearly record counts for academic publications on ecosystem services. Research output dates back to 1977, increases in the 1990s, and accelerates after 2005, the year the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was completed (Suarez & Dempsey 2018)

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. World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, IUCN, among many others); in various intergovernmental processes undertaken through the United Nations (e.g. at UNEP-WCMC); in the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and World Bank (e.g. the Wealth Accounting and Valuation of Ecosystem Services global partnership, or “WAVES”); 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.

The question of what nature is “worth” has seized the imaginations of environmentalists and has come to preoccupy the organized conservation movement. Extending theoretical frameworks from political ecology, science and technology studies, and critical and constructivist variants of institutional theory, my dissertation analyzes the rise of ecosystem services discourse in global environmental governance. Why has nature’s dollar sign gained such widespread currency among conservation practitioners? What is at stake in re-representing biodiversity in this manner? And what are the implications of this framework for environmental policy, environmental sciences, and environmentalism?

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Logos of new organizations, partnerships, and initiatives that have emerged in recent years focusing on different aspects of natural capital and ecosystem services