Friday, June 7, 2019

Q&A with SPI’s Dr. Kai Chan, Lead Co-Author of Landmark U.N. Biodiversity Report: Visiting SPI scholar Dr. Kai Chan helped write the recently-launched landmark U.N. Biodiversity Report and negotiated its release in Paris.

This Q & A first appeared on the Smart Prosperity Institute on June 5, 2019. 

To see more, watch the entire webinar on the 'Landmark U.N. Biodiversity Report with Lead Co-Author', Kai Chan.

Visiting SPI scholar Dr. Kai Chan helped write the recently-launched landmark U.N. Biodiversity Report and negotiated its release in Paris.

Recently, Dr. Chan held a webinar for hundreds of participants on his insights and experience. He discussed the report findings on biodiversity loss – its implications for Canada, and the solutions we need to embrace to transform our global financial and economic systems towards sustainability.

Due to the overwhelming response, not all submitted participant questions were able to be addressed in the allotted webinar time. SPI sat down with Dr. Chan afterwards to answer them:

Can you speak to the role and responsibilities of Indigenous Peoples in the process? IPBES made a concerted effort to consider other ways of knowing and knowledge systems yet these solutions are very much acknowledging the capitalist approach. I understand the need for a new method to our capitalist approach to the environment but do you see a transformative change coming through other ways of knowing?

You’re absolutely correct. Throughout the Global Assessment process, IPBES put a lot of emphasis on Indigenous Peoples and local communities and other systems of knowledge. I didn’t go into this in detail during the webinar, but the fifth leverage point, “Practice justice and inclusion in conservation” is very much about including Indigenous Peoples and local communities in meaningful ways, including via co-governance agreements.

Furthermore, other ways of knowing are central to the eighth leverage point, “Promote education and knowledge generation and sharing”, where Indigenous and local knowledge are recognized as equally important (albeit different) to science. There is a great wealth of information about ecosystems in local and traditional knowledge and practices.

How do you operationalize these ambitious policies in governments that may be hostile? Can you speak more about the political will side of things and how your proposals can overcome political obstacles?

Some governments will indeed be hostile, and even those that are on board in principle probably won’t just jump on board and simply implement the changes we call for—unless they hear from their constituents that such changes are favoured. This is why I have put so much emphasis on the need for civic action and consumer action, including in this new commentary.

Following the release of the Global Assessment, we launched this Citizen’s call to action. It’s not the end, only the beginning, but intended to bring together folks who want real change, and to show our collective support to policymakers in many places.

As a petition for general structural changes, it won’t take off like petitions for individual tortured pets and wild animals, but perhaps it can gather steam with the help of folks like you sharing with friends and family with a personal explanation as to why you think this kind of change is needed.

How do we address the growing popularity of attacking science and the perception it is pushing an agenda at the costs of peoples’ rights or entitlement? How do you counter the deep pockets of industry that promotes “alternative facts” which are taken up as ‘gospel’ by the masses?

Attacks on science and the perpetuation of fake news are such damaging developments. I think there are two key answers: First, we need to explain science simply. People are skeptical of what they don’t understand, and it doesn’t help when many scientists react to the nervousness of speaking in public by cloaking themselves in a veil of expertise via technical—jargon-laden—language. Most people are capable of understanding the gist of most relevant science. We just need to do a better job of communicating accessibly.

Second, we need to engage the skeptics and their arguments. I know many folks say not to engage the trolls, but many of the folks who disagree are not monsters—they just see things differently. I have taken to engaging with them, respectfully but firmly (I cut it off as soon if they won’t be polite). Once I’ve responded as a human being, sometimes I need to explain that I’m not in it for the money or fame. I spent thousands of hours on the IPBES Global Assessment, as a volunteer, and the attention we’ve received is a pleasant surprise (not something I expected)!

Engaging with the arguments of skeptics—again clearly and accessibly—is essential. Otherwise, we are talking past each other, and most folks can’t make heads or tails of the truth because both sides may sound sensible and neither side addresses the other side’s claims. Growing out of the Citizen’s Call (above), this is something we’re now planning to do at a new initiative called CoSphere: make sense of complex, contentious issues in clear and simple terms. Armed with this information, people can act with confidence.

The citizen call and Global Sustainable Economy sounds a bit like a “voluntary biodiversity tax” on consumer goods/behaviors. Are you worried that it will be framed this way (given how controversial carbon taxes have been in places like Canada and the US)?

There’s a big difference between a voluntary fee and a tax. If a fee is voluntary (even if it’s opt-out), it generally doesn’t get framed as a tax—appropriately. The hope is that we can show that the fee is something that people will be willing to pay—first a minority of people, but then more and more as it becomes more socially normal. Once it is normal, resistance to it being made mandatory should be small. Rather, the majority is likely to demand that, so that the laggards can’t free-load on the rest. It’ll take a groundswell of pushing from folks like you to make it normal, but we believe in people. It’s just the right thing to do, to take responsibility for our environmental messes.

Regarding the 2020 biodiversity conference in Beijing, do you think there will be another set of changed Aichi Goals that the member nations should achieve by 2050? Or will the approach to biodiversity be different? Will CoSphere be proposed in this conference as well so that international bodies can implement this project?

I have been an eager participant in the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 process for a Global Biodiversity Framework, but I don’t feel ‘in the know’. I’m not sure whether there will be new goals, like the Aichi Targets. It would be great if a CoSphere-like program were on the table as a possibility, but I haven’t heard anything yet for that upcoming conference.

Understanding that this is a global issue that will require a global response, how can we ensure that the “calls to action” are focused on regionally specific actions plans? I ask because of the understanding that each ecosphere and bioregion of the earth has a unique set of growing conditions, which will require a different response to the challenges they face. For example, the “Project Beef” initiative--beef is such a regionally specific challenge. Here on Northern Great Plains, Native Prairie is critically endangered. If it wasn’t for beef grazing these grasslands (which need grazing to stay healthy) there would be even more pressure to convert the Native Prairie to other agricultural uses. So beef production is a key component of Grassland Conservation. However, in the Amazon rainforest, beef cattle production is a key driver for forest clearing, meaning that in that ecosphere, beef production is not sustainable. Point being, we need a global response that is regionally specific to ensure practices can be considered within the context of the region.

Bang on: we need a global response that is tailored for regional differences. This is a point we emphasized strongly in Chapter 5 of the Global Assessment, and it’s one that’s built into how we envision CoSphere working. The notion is that mitigation funding from individuals and organizations would get distributed through a series of regional participatory processes. These processes would include science as well as Indigenous and local knowledge to identify the pressures that are especially problematic in a given region, and the mitigation actions that are especially helpful and desirable, locally.

There was little mention of population growth in your presentation. Does the report deal with the underlying causes like population growth?

Yes, population growth is explicitly a key component of “Total consumption and waste”, the second leverage point. Total consumption is a product of population size and per-capita consumption. We bundle them together because it’s the combination that matters, and almost every place needs to address the combination, although richer nations generally have to focus more on per-capita consumption and less-developed nations generally have to focus more on population growth.

Bouncing back to the example you mentioned about compensating beef consumption, could you expand on voluntary compensation markets for ecological services other than carbon?

The idea is that we can mitigate the impacts associated with our purchase of beef by paying to help farmers and other stewards of the land do things that they often already want to do. E.g., beef production is associated with greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, wildlife declines, and degradation of water quality. These impacts can be addressed at local or regional scales by paying farmers and others to stock at lower densities or rotate livestock sustainably, improve soil conservation practices, restore native grasses, and fence streams to keep cattle from degrading riparian vegetation. My group (CHANS Lab) has done a lot of work on the design of ‘incentive’ or stewardship programs, and how to make them effective, inclusive and sustainable.

Where does the traditional work of conservation fit in all this?

The traditional work of conservation (including NGOs, government agencies, etc.), protecting and restoring lands and waters, is absolutely fundamental. It is implicit throughout the pathways forward, including a Global Sustainable Economy and CoSphere. In the Assessment, we found—as so many other assessments have found—that we need to redouble our efforts.

But we also found that simply saying that wasn’t going to make it happen, and that we needed changes to the economy, politics and policies that make conservation and restoration normal, and that prevent the damage to nature before it even happens. The Global Sustainable Economy and CoSphere are intended to do just that, so that conservation and restoration are activities that all organizations and individuals eventually commit to do (or fund) at the scale of our impacts on nature.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Mental health crisis: in the middle of the storm

By Jai Ranganathan

“I don’t deserve to be here.”

“I am the stupidest person in my lab.”

“Everyone can clearly see how idiotic my work is.”

“I am a joke.”

Does any of this sound familiar? When I was getting my doctorate in ecology, phrases like these formed the spinning center of a nonstop interior dialogue of sorrow and self-recrimination.

And, unfortunately, I wasn’t the only graduate student who felt this way. Recent research has shown something that almost everyone connected to academia knows: there is a mental health crisis among graduate students (REF 1 at bottom).

Treatment resistant depression. Anxiety disorder. Imposter syndrome. We have invented an almost endless supply of words of clinical and bloodless terms to describe the ways we can silently suffer in our own minds. But none of them can truly describe the searing experience of actually being in the middle of a mental health hurricane.

If you’re a graduate student (or anyone really) in the middle of the mental storm, it is really easy to blame yourself for being in the maelstrom to begin with. It’s really easy to think of yourself as fatally flawed, somehow intrinsically undeserving of being anywhere near academia.

But of course, none of that is true. Mental health concerns, even severe long-lasting mental health concerns, don’t have to prevent highly successful academic careers. In her book Lab Girl, ecologist Hope Jahren talks in detail about how she navigated academia even with her bipolar diagnosis. And Kay Redfield Jamison’s entire career as an extremely prominent psychologist at Johns Hopkins University has been closely tied to her own long-standing mental health issues (her book An Unquiet Mind is a classic memoir of living an academic life with mental illness as a constant companion).

Author Jai Ranganathan, of SciFund Challenge, bringing
scientists together to build a more science-engaged world.
So, if you’re in the middle of the storm, the key question is surely: how do I get out? Just speaking from my own experience in the storm (and not as a mental health professional, which I’m not), I can say for sure that the number one thing is to not ignore it. Like attempting to run a marathon while ignoring a broken leg, ignoring your own mental health issues in the middle of your graduate career is likely to turn out poorly and with lots of unnecessary suffering.

So what should you do? We all know the general advice. See a counselor. Take medication. Go to a support group. Take better care of yourself. Etc.

But here’s the thing that they don’t tell you. Many of those mental-health-improvement things won’t work in your specific case. It happens all the time. A particular medication makes all the difference in the world for a given person but yet, for another person with the exact same condition, that medication is not effective. For one person, going running daily is the key to mental health improvement, while for another going running is the sure-fire path to more misery.

Unfortunately, the solution to mental health issues for any particular individual is almost certainly going to be idiosyncratic and individual. If you are trying to get out of the mental health storm, there simply is no substitute for trying a million things out, knowing that some of them (most of them?) are going to fail. And the fact that there is a high failure rate in the things that you try to help yourself doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong - it’s just the nature of the process. It’s also just like trying to find a pair of pants that fit really well - it would be pretty unlikely that the first pair that you try on in the story truly fit. But if you just keep trying on more things, you’ll get there eventually - so long as you keep trying.

So, where do you get started? In my own particular idiosyncratic case, I have found to be particularly helpful the program known as WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). Through WRAP, you’ll find a ton of ideas for things that you can try.

And what if it isn’t you in the storm, but instead a friend, colleague, or family member? What can can you do to help them out? The good news is that there is a lot you can do. Research indicates that social support can make a gigantic difference in mental health recovery. This is true even for conditions like schizophrenia, which in the past had been considered to be treatable chiefly through medication-only approaches (REF 2). If you are trying to figure out how to approach someone who seems to be struggling, here are two resources to check out (1, 2). If the person that you are concerned about is someone with whom you share a close connection, I would strongly recommend attending a support group meeting intended for those with mentally ill loved ones. These groups are truly lifesavers for so many and are commonly held as community meetings. If you are in the United States, you can find your closest support group via the National Alliance for Mental Health. In Canada, a great place to find a support group is through your local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

[KC: for more on mental health issues in grad school, see this great  2-part series by Sarah Klain, Ally Thompson, Karina Benessaiah, and Verena Seufert]

1. Evans, T.M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J.B., Weiss, L.T., Vanderford, N.L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology (36) 282–284.
2. Kane, J.M., et al. (2015). Comprehensive Versus Usual Community Care for First-Episode Psychosis: 2-Year Outcomes From the NIMH RAISE Early Treatment Program. The American Journal of Psychiatry 173 (4): 362-372.

When are models too complex? What counts as independent (and representative) data for model testing?

In a Hindsight blog for Functional Ecologists, of the British Ecological Society, Kai Chan and Edward Gregr tackle some crucial questions about model building and validation. Everyone knows that you need independent and representative data to properly test a model, but what counts as 'independent' and 'representative'? How are these concepts affected by scale? If you want to keep up with evolving norms for proper model building and testing, this post may help.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

“Sleep Is for the Plane Ride Home”? NO: Let’s Stop Celebrating Sacrificing Our Health

By Kai Chan
GYA sticker, photo courtesy
of Ignacio Palomo.

I’m tired of fellow academics boasting about how little sleep they got, as if it’s some badge of honour that they’re willing to give it all for their science or scholarship. Not that it’s always boasting, mind you--sometimes, more appropriately, it’s explaining crankiness or bloodshot eyes, acknowledging procrastination or overcommitment, or just plain complaining. Those are all fair game.

But when it sounds like boasting, comments like this propagate a dangerous celebration of academic martyrdom that normalizes unhealthy habits and turns many a brilliant student away from academia. This is true even though the problem of sacrificing sleep goes well beyond academia, including law, business, medicine, etc.

“Sleep is for the plane ride home”? No, sleep is for the
This weary traveller didn’t make it to the plane--
here she’s 
sprawled over our luggage in the lounge.
I’ve definitely remarked on sleepless nights in ways that might sound like a brag. No longer.

Too many students tell me they don’t want to go on in academia, because they see how busy their professors are, and they can’t imagine that being a good life. Who can blame them? But is that really what we want for academia? A profession that weeds out those who prioritize family and health over working 60+ hour weeks? What a recipe for dysfunctional workplaces and academic communities.

Another weary traveller. My daughter was so tired from the
plane that she wouldn’t wake for a feeding (years ago now).
For me, this post was prompted when I spotted Ignacio Palomo’s Global Young Academy sticker, “Sleep Is for the Plane Ride Home”. (Ignacio was using it only to show his appreciation of GYA, not his support for the attitude it represents.) I love the GYA, and my colleague and friend who coined and popularized this phrase, meaning that one shouldn’t waste time sleeping while at GYA meetings. What’s great about the phrase is how it succinctly captures a strong commitment to the organization and GYA friends.

On this 21-hour journey to Brisbane (which started at 6pm),
I got 20 minutes of shut-eye while my 1-year old slept on my
chest. I’d just as soon boast about that as I would boast about
driving 140 km/h. (It’s just as much of a social burden given
that fatigue is a leading cause of motor accidents.)
But now that it’s on organizational stickers, let’s also acknowledge its dark side: the slogan celebrates habits that compromise our health. And it sends the signal that those who don’t want to do that (who want to get a good night’s sleep) don’t belong.

As I said, I cherish my GYA colleagues, but I didn’t want to show it by staying up until 3 AM. I had too much else going on, and I didn’t want to return to my family fried or sick because I worked myself into the ground. Plus, I'm a better person when I have good sleep: more patient, more generous, less self-absorbed.

It’s hard enough getting a good night sleep without that kind of social pressure (witness exhibit D, left).

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Ecosystem Services and NCP: There’s Room for Both in a Bigger Tent

[The following is an edited synopsis of part of our longer official response on March 12 in Science about nature's contributions to people (NCP). Re: the original article, see this IPBES news item.]
Given that the Inuit have over 50 words for snow, how does an Inuit person translate a white skier’s question, “How’s the snow?” Without a precise mapping of terms, the translation is likely to include other dimensions of meaning, including the ‘positionality’ of the questioner (a white outsider) and the underlying purpose (recreating on Inuit territory). There is no way for any outsider’s language and concepts--e.g., about ecosystem services--not to suffer the same fate: they will both lose meaning that is crucial to locals, while also accruing conceptual baggage that may alienate them. A key point of the NCP approach is to explicitly recognize the legitimacy of a context-specific understanding, which defies the predetermined categorization that is so central to the ecosystem-services approach. And thus NCP is not merely political compromise but rather a broadening of epistemologies.
The snow allegory illustrates elements of the statement that “ecosystem services are NCP”: yes, ‘ecosystem services’ represents an important subset of ways of understanding nature’s diverse contributions to people. For some—including many social scientists and humanities scholars—there is hesitation or resistance to engage with ‘ecosystem services’, since the term comes with a conceptual baggage regarding the implicit assumptions and intended purpose. Not only is there the troubling connotation in the analogy of ecosystems as service-providers like factories (Norgaard 2010), but ‘ecosystem services’ has become associated at least partly with the notion of pricing nature so as to save it (Spash 2008; Dempsey & Robertson 2012; Crouzat 2018; Castree 2017). NCP represents a response, to broaden the tent by broadening the term.
Our promotion of NCP is no battle for territory: ecosystem services researchers should keep using that term, and we will too—in appropriate contexts. It remains in IPBES’ name, our job titles, and our explanations of who we are and what we do. It is perfectly functional for some audiences, and preferable for others—but not all (Fairbank 2010). In some other contexts, we will use NCP in order to intentionally signal an approach that explicitly invites and embraces diverse conceptions of nature and our relationships with it. This conceptual broadening is especially important when stakeholders do not accept the stock-flow metaphor associated with narrowing down nature to natural capital and all of its contributions as services (Chan et al. 2016; Pollini 2016; Pascual et al. 2017).
The issue is not whether the social sciences and humanities are represented in the field, but how visible and comfortable they are, whether there could be more, and if it would be productive. There are important social-science and humanities contributions in ecosystem services, and we have all intentionally strived to make more space for these (Chan et al. 2012; Martín-López et al. 2014; Pascual et al., 2014; Díaz et al. 2015; Berbés-Blázquez et al., 2016; Stenseke & Larigauderie 2017). But many review papers have found a narrow engagement of ecosystem services research with the social sciences (Liquete et al. 2013; Haase et al. 2014; Nieto-Romero et al. 2014; Chaudhary et al. 2015; Luederitz et al. 2015; Fagerholm et al. 2016). We know of many excellent social scholars who have been turned off by the term, and some who have engaged and have contributed importantly report a persistent queasiness (Satterfield et al. 2013; Satz et al. 2013).
We favour a big tent for this party that is research on nature’s contributions, and terms aren’t one-size-fit-all. Since many scholars report continued chafing with ‘ecosystem services’, despite our efforts to stretch it, we simply intend to provide a new term to invite a broader range of scholars and knowledge holders.


Berbés-Blázquez, M., J. A. González and U. Pascual (2016). "Towards an ecosystem services approach that addresses social power relations." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 19: 134-143.
Castree, N. (2017). "Speaking for the ‘people disciplines’: Global change science and its human dimensions." The Anthropocene Review 4(3): 160-182.
Chan, K. M. A., T. Satterfield and J. Goldstein (2012). "Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values." Ecological Economics 74(February): 8-18.
Chan, K. M. A., P. Balvanera, K. Benessaiah, et al. (2016). "Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment." PNAS 113(6): 1462–1465.
Chaudhary, S., A. McGregor, D. Houston and N. Chettri (2015). "The evolution of ecosystem services: A time series and discourse-centered analysis." Environmental Science & Policy 54: 25-34.
Crouzat, E., I. Arpin, L. Brunet, M. J. Colloff, F. Turkelboom and S. Lavorel (2018). "Researchers must be aware of their roles at the interface of ecosystem services science and policy." Ambio 47(1): 97-105.
Dempsey, J. and M. M. Robertson (2012). "Ecosystem services: Tensions, impurities, and points of engagement within neoliberalism." Progress in Human Geography.
Díaz, S., S. Demissew, C. Joly, et al. (2015). "The IPBES Conceptual Framework - connecting nature and people." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14(June): 1-16.
Fagerholm, N., M. Torralba, P. J. Burgess and T. Plieninger (2016). "A systematic map of ecosystem services assessments around European agroforestry." Ecological Indicators 62: 47-65.
Fairbank, M., Maullin, Metz and Associates, and Public Opinion Strategies (2010). National public opinion research project, The Nature Conservancy.
Haase, D., N. Larondelle, E. Andersson, et al. (2014). "A quantitative review of urban ecosystem service assessments: Concepts, models, and implementation." AMBIO 43(4): 413-433.
Liquete, C., C. Piroddi, E. G. Drakou, L. Gurney, S. Katsanevakis, A. Charef and B. Egoh (2013). "Current status and future prospects for the assessment of marine and coastal ecosystem services: A systematic review." PLoS ONE 8(7): e67737.
Luederitz, C., E. Brink, F. Gralla, et al. (2015). "A review of urban ecosystem services: six key challenges for future research." Ecosystem Services 14: 98-112.
Martín-López, B., E. Gómez-Baggethun, M. García-Llorente and C. Montes (2014). "Trade-offs across value-domains in ecosystem services assessment." Ecological Indicators 37, Part A(0): 220-228.
Nieto-Romero, M, Oteros-Rozas, E., González, J.A. and B Martín-López (2014) Exploring the knowledge landscape of ecosystem services assessments in Mediterranean agroecosystems: insights for future research. Environmental Science & Policy 37: 121-133
Norgaard, R. B. (2010). "Ecosystem services: From eye-opening metaphor to complexity blinder." Ecological Economics 69(6): 1219-1227.
Pascual, U., Phelps, J., Garmendia, E., Brown, K., Corbera, E., Martin, A., Gomez-Baggethun, E., Muradian, R. (2014). Social Equity matters in Payments for Ecosystem Services. Bioscience 64(11): 1027-1036 doi: 10.1093/biosci/biu146
Pascual, U., P. Balvanera, S. Díaz, et al. (2017). "Valuing nature’s contributions to people: the IPBES approach." Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 26–27: 7-16.
Pollini, J. (2016). Construction of nature. International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology. D. Richardson, N. Castree, M. F. Goodchild et al, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd: 1-7.
Satterfield, T., R. Gregory, S. Klain, M. Roberts and K. M. Chan (2013). "Culture, intangibles and metrics in environmental management." Journal of Environmental Management 117: 103-114.
Satz, D., R. K. Gould, K. M. A. Chan, et al. (2013). "The challenges of incorporating cultural ecosystem services into environmental assessment." Ambio 42(6): 675-684.
Spash, C. L. (2008). "How much is that ecosystem in the window? The one with the bio-diverse trail." Environmental Values 17(2): 259-284.
Stenseke, M. and A. Larigauderie (2017). "The role, importance and challenges of social sciences and humanities in the work of the intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services (IPBES)." Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research: 1-5.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Finding a balance between bibliometric and societal impact

Re-blogged from Elephant in the Lab:

An interview with Kai Chan and his strategies to seek the combination of both
kinds of impacts.
There is a tremendous difference between bibliometric and societal impact. I devoted a blog post to this when I had the honour of reaching 100 publications in the peer-reviewed literature. I didn’t feel the sense of accomplishment that I imagined I might have—and should have—felt. Although I had achieved a bibliometric feat, it didn’t mean I had achieved my desired societal impact. Indeed, the moment reminded me that I had got distracted from my core commitments. I delve into why in the post (above).
Importantly, though, bibliometric and societal impacts don’t necessarily diverge in the long run. Some of the publications that I’m proudest of are those that have done well by bibliometrics and also changed discourse and practice. But there important applied projects that generate little notice by bibliometrics, and I have well-scoring papers that arguably aren’t very useful for practice (even probably in the long run).... continued at

Monday, December 4, 2017

Economizing nature as a political strategy: Is it working?

A review of Enterprising Nature: Economics, Markets and Finance in Global Biodiversity Politics. Jessica Dempsey. John Wiley & Sons, 2016. 296 pp., illus. $XX.XX (ISBN: 9781118640555 paper). Book review published in

Marc Tadaki and Kai Chan

The idea that we need to “sell nature to save it” has become somewhat of a truism in discussions about the conservation of nature. Financial flows change the world, the argument goes, and if conservationists can alter those flows, they can change the world. This has led, in recent decades, to collaborations between ecologists, economists and governments in attempts to mainstream biodiversity and ecosystem services into a variety of economic framings and tools. By bringing biodiversity into the domain of economic calculus, perhaps the inherently enterprising capacities of nature can be valued and preserved. In other words, by extending the market to include biodiversity, nature should save itself!

Enterprising Nature is the first book by Jessica Dempsey, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia. In Enterprising Nature, Dempsey draws on over 10 years of research into global biodiversity politics to offer a fresh perspective to these ever-important debates about the financialization and commodification of nature. In simple terms, Dempsey sets out to evaluate whether “selling nature to save it” is actually working as a political strategy. By tracing the networks of people and ideas that have influenced conservationist arguments to commodify nature, Dempsey takes readers through a cumulative series of choices made by scientists and their collaborators that has resulted in framing the conservation “problem” within a market-based framework. In so doing, she provides a window into a room that many of us have long inhabited, but whose dimensions and dynamics we have never seen so clearly. Throughout this account, Dempsey points to other ways of framing local and global biodiversity that have been rejected and marginalized along the way. By revisiting these choices and their alternatives, she argues, a new global biodiversity politics can be envisioned, and perhaps, pursued.

The argument of Enterprising Nature is developed over eight concise but meaty chapters. The introduction sketches the contours of an emerging global discourse of an “enterprising nature” that seeks to bring biodiversity within economic tools and framings. In the first section of the book, Dempsey examines two major developments in the history of enterprising nature: the ecological thinking promoted by Paul and Anne Ehrlich and others in the 1970s and 1980s, and the work conducted within Stockholm’s Beijer Institute for Ecological Economics. Through these developments, scientists shifted away from a radical critique of capitalism to instead create an “ecological-economic tribunal for (nonhuman) life” (p57). This involves constructing an inventory of ecosystem functions and then assigning equivalences, weightings, and rankings to these functions so that certain functions can be prioritised for human needs.

The book’s second section examines contemporary international efforts to value biodiversity within a market framework. In the realm of global science and governmental policy, initiatives such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the decision-support tool InVEST are used to explore the assumptions, exclusions, and implications of embedding economic frameworks in policy settings. In the private sector, Dempsey then analyses attempts by scientists to represent biodiversity as a material risk to investment actors. This risk-based “venture ecology” (p128) is less concerned with making ecosystems into commodities, and more concerned with using ecological data to reduce risk and make a “smoother space for development” (p129). As an end-goal for conservation, then, venture ecology seeks only strategic degradation rather than large-scale rehabilitation of ecological functioning.

The third section of the book considers whether any of the promised finance is flowing from the institutionalization of these new economic instruments. Dempsey maps out the figurative ecology of biodiversity finance: its main ‘species’ of actors (e.g., NGOs, government agencies, bankers), their natural habitats of interaction, and their functions within the system. She draws on observations from conferences on biodiversity finance to consider the progress being made in attempts to economize and commodify biodiversity, noting the challenges and failures that characterise many of these attempts, including the failed proposal for a “Green Development Mechanism”. In the international policy arena, Dempsey reports her experiences of meetings under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity, analyzing how colonial histories and North-South power differentials justify parties’ resistances to contemporary proposals to create financial mechanisms for biodiversity conservation.

Dempsey concludes that the promise of “selling nature to save it” has born sparse and stunted fruit; that this promise is “Conceptually dominant, but substantively marginal” (p234). Rather than allying with existing elites and seeking to extend capitalist structures of extraction and exploitation, Dempsey argues that scientists should instead consider allying with green social movements, indigenous communities, and all those who are seeking to challenge the economic relations that have produced (and continue to produce) ecological devastation at a planetary scale.

The book is a must-read for environmental scientists who have long been immersed in a world where efforts to ‘enterprise’ nature (i.e., sell it, broadly) are seen as necessary politically, and where critics are too often dismissed as utopian dreamers. Dempsey cannot be dismissed so easily. Though the book is ultimately critical of attempts to economize nature, it is sympathetic to the scientists, economists, and others who have tried to leverage ecosystem services as a political strategy to halt and reverse ecological degradation. Dempsey’s most compelling doubts and criticisms are often our own, articulated through the surprising frank words of frontline proponents for ‘enterprising’ nature—e.g., wondering whether the ‘enterprising’ nature project has truly yielded much, for all the celebration, or claiming that ecosystem service markets are merely a fad. Dempsey even highlights the radical political implications of ecological science, while also drawing attention to the explicit and intentional choices that many scientists have made to ally with corporate and political power to make their case for conservation. Against these capitalist and elitist tendencies, Dempsey advocates for a “critical ecology” that will “discard dreams of mastery, to embrace highly dynamic, uncertain, and deep unknowns of the future” (p121), and that such an ecology should be “conducted… not to serve elite needs, but to serve [social] movements with a real chance of creating abundant, diverse futures” (p121).

The central challenge posed by the book lies in its prescription for conservation’s future success. Given that Dempsey, by her own admission, was always a sceptic of the neoliberal turn in conservation, readers may not be fully convinced by a journey that resulted in continued scepticism. Dempsey’s call for a grassroots politics of opposition to the fundamental capitalist forces causing environmental degradation may ring true but idealistic: of course it is needed, but can it redirect the juggernaut of global supply chains and consumer demands, when even the fiercest ecological activists cannot escape these relations? Ultimately we are all complicit in the destruction wrought by the capitalist logics of property, value, and profit, and many of us are already willing to challenge these fundamentals if given the chance. While emerging nuanced strategies seek to practically rework economic tools and logics in search of environmental justice, this book opts for an oppositional stance to financialization in toto, which may also prove constraining. However, nuances aside, the book does open these issues for discussion in a productive way, and for this reason it deserves a wide and engaged readership.

In sum, Enterprising Nature provides an empirically rigorous and analytically insightful assessment of the “selling nature to save it” hypothesis. Scientists, economists, policymakers, and conservationists of all stripes will benefit from this novel analysis of the interrelationships between biodiversity science, policy and finance. Dempsey excavates some important choices to scientists about how we choose to “do politics” through our science and through our alliances. With the terrain of biodiversity science and politics set to shift drastically over the coming years in the U.S. and internationally, more than ever conservationists need new and radical ideas; and this book provides some.