The Alchemy of Natural Capital

Since 2006, the Natural Capital Project (NatCap) has worked diligently to “mainstream” ecosystem services concepts across a diverse range of governance contexts with the aim of “aligning economic forces with conservation.” I examine NatCap’s epistemic advocacy network through the perspectives and experiences of the practitioners who comprise it. Building on scholarship examining specific sites and policies where the concept of ecosystem services has started to manifest in practice (e.g. in the form of PES schemes), my research shifts attention toward the concept’s agents: the mobile experts that circulate across these sites and agitate for those policies. I draw on interviews and participant observation with NatCap’s personnel conducted over two years to consider the cross-scalar institutional dynamics implicating these practitioners in pronounced changes to biodiversity conservation. I focus on the political “work” these experts perform as they propagate and attempt to institutionalize ecosystem services approaches in and through their organizations. These contextual micro-social practices, I argue, serve as important operational means by which ecosystem services experts work to re-align conservation to better accord with hegemonic discursive, macro-institutional, and political-economic logics. Yet, I also argue that what constitutes an “ecosystem services approach” has evolved in arguably significant ways related to how the concept’s proponents—including those involved with NatCap—have come to understand the theories of change underlying their work, the broader political import of the knowledge they produce, and over a decade of inevitably messy, challenging entanglements with dozens of diverse projects, partners, and political processes.

This paper was to the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in New Orleans. The graphic above is from the website, Taking Stock of Myanmar’s Natural Capital, produced by WWF, the Natural Capital Project, and several other organizations.