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.  

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