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.  

Monday, November 27, 2017

My Disciplinary Box: Unleash Me!

In 20 years of wrestling with the Canadian funding system, nothing has frustrated me more than being forced to squeeze my round interdisciplinary derrière into a square disciplinary box. “What are you?” people ask, “A natural scientist or a social scientist?” I reply, now proudly: “I’m an interdisciplinary mutt.”
Canada, it's time to enable important insight- and solutions-oriented research: legitimize interdisciplinary identities with a revamping of Canada’s funding councils.
It's frustrating to be binned into one category or another for funding
purposes, when the truth is something in between--a reality that deserves
its own recognition and celebration.
After over 12 years as a faculty member at UBC, it was inspiring to see the parade of accomplished scholars among my fellow new members of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. As we stood up to introduce each other, we were asked to find connections; I was buoyed by the many people who found themselves--as I do--sitting between disciplinary boxes. Despite having succeeded in navigating the system, though, many of the folks I talked to had stories like me of having been forced to try to fit a disciplinary box to obtain the funding needed for their research programs (e.g., Elena Bennett, Joule Bergerson).
I’ve got lots of stories of stifling disciplinary boxes, but most existential of all is the fear of being judged ‘not natural science-y’ enough or ‘not social’ enough. One of my colleagues, Tim McDaniels was judged ‘not NSERC material’ when he was principal investigator (PI) of a major international project funded by the Belmont Forum. We got the grant but NSERC refused to fund him. On the flip side, I just had the criticism that an NSERC project I proposed to lead (in one of the few programs that invites interdisciplinary research involving social sciences and humanities) didn’t have the needed social science expertise on the team.
Now, it’s true that we almost certainly would have included another social scientist colleague somewhat in the project, serving as a committee member or even co-supervisor for some of the students. And it could have been good to include that person early.
On the other hand, I have supervised students doing interviews and surveys with farmers about values, motivations, and behaviours--precisely the work we had proposed. I have served as PI for at least three grants to fund such work. But this expertise received little emphasis in my brief-format CV, as I strived to demonstrate that I was sufficiently grounded in the natural sciences to lead a major NSERC grant.
Canada is currently in the midst of reconsidering its approach to research funding, as the Canadian
Canada's Fundamental Science Review is
blunt but brilliant about several strengths
and weaknesses of Canadian science. But
it is entirely silent about interdisciplinarity.
government decides what to implement from its Fundamental Science Review. The report makes excellent points about the crucial importance of investigator-led research. Unfortunately, it is entirely silent about interdisciplinarity. It addresses multidisciplinary research,
but that’s not the same thing. Whereas multidisciplinary research involves multiple threads, each stemming from a different discipline, interdisciplinary research braids together methods and theories from multiple disciplines in order to answer questions that extend beyond the reach of any single one. I generally combine social and ecological research, ditto for Elena Bennett. For Sarah de Leeuw, it’s the arts and health of Indigenous peoples; for Frank Gu, it’s health and nanotechnology engineering; for Joule Bergerson and Jan Franklin Adamowski, it’s engineering and social sciences; for Catherine Beauchemin, it’s virology and physics. By my count, at least 12 of the 72 (1 in 6) new members of the college were interdisciplinary across our three disciplinary funding councils (and many more were interdisciplinary within).
How have you been hemmed in to a disciplinary box? How has this impeded your ability to follow your passions, or to solve crucial societal problems? Tell us below, in the comments, or tell your story on social media using #disciplinarybox.

P.S. Thanks to Elena Bennett for the “disciplinary box” term, and for editing this!
P.P.S. Canadians, please also use #Canada to enable us to send a clear message to Canadian policymakers, including Honourable Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan (her own research combined archaeology and virology!).

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Why Does the World Need IPBES?

by Kai Chan (disclosure: I'm not unbiased re: IPBES; I'm involved, as explained below) Edited for public consumption 2017.11.27
IPBES (the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) is operating on a shoestring budget to provide a critical service to humanity. But the funding will need to be renewed in 2020 and there is great uncertainty regarding the commitments nations will make given the current geopolitical context. So it’s worth pondering, why—after all—does the world need IPBES?
The usual argument against IPBES being an essential global institution is that problems of nature and its benefits to people (biodiversity and ecosystem services) are local or regional problems, unlike climate change. Without global dynamics, goes this argument, there’s no need for a global institution. Personally, I have wondered whether this is true. Even as late as mid-September, I wasn't sure if IPBES really was needed.
But problems of nature are global problems, in three key ways.
Male peacock spider: not only vertebrates are cool (Wiki).
Check out this amazing video of a courtship dance.
First, our responsibility for nature is global. Our grandchildren will thank us for saving wildlife and wild spaces wherever they occur. Correspondingly, if we fail to prioritize this, they will surely blame us for it, whether the extinguished flora and fauna are tropical rainforests, Arctic tundra, coral reefs, peacock spiders, tigers or emperor penguins—regardless of whether these wonders fall within our national borders.
Second, what happens elsewhere affects us here. ‘Telecoupling’ is real: when Indonesian forest fires associated with industrial agriculture choked much of Equatorial Asia with smoke and smog, over 100,000 people likely died prematurely in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (NYTimes, ERL). 
Smoke from Indonesian forest fires, courtesy of NASA
 When expanding deserts in China—due to overgrazing, ‘bad cultivation’ and deforestation—allowed winds to pick up thousands of tons of fine sediment, people halfway across the world experienced yellow dust. This dust, which has been found in New Zealand and the French Alps, is estimated to cost Korea and Japan billions of dollars each year (Conversation). And the ongoing improper handling of plastics in many nations has resulted in a massive gyre of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean and our seafood being laced with plastic nodules—such that seafood eaters are likely consuming many thousands of pieces every year (Telegraph, Scientific Reports). Similarly, industrial processes have resulted in high levels of mercury, PCBs, and dioxins in many fish species, especially predators like swordfish, salmon, tuna, and mackerel. All that is just a handful of the ways that what happens far away matters locally.
Ocean plastics in Hawai'i (NOAA)
Third, what we do here drives what happens there. Have you eaten a candy bar recently? Some other processed food (much of which contains palm oil, whose production fuels the aforementioned land-use change and fires in Indonesia)? Then you’re complicit in the Indonesian fires. Do you eat imported meat and rice? If so, you’re partly responsible for the dust storms from Asia, as global markets spread our demand across distant sites of production. Do you use plastic products or anything with plastic production? Then you, like me, are complicit in the mass plasticization of the oceans.
Nature problems are global problems, so we need a concerted global effort to synthesize and advance the understanding of these problems—and their ultimate causes. By doing this, IPBES can enable appropriate responses among governments, NGOs, and the private sector. And when responses aren’t appropriate, this rigorously synthesized global information will enable other actors to hold their feet to the fire. Governments: keep funding IPBES. In fact, double your contribution, or more.

Clearly, IPBES can't solve these problems alone--and if you know me and CoSphere you know I think there are solutions to all these problems--but IPBES has a crucial role to play, as I'll explain in subsequent blog posts.

Readers: if you see the benefits of IPBES given the global nature of these problems, please like and share this page with the #fundIPBES hashtag. As a coordinating lead author of IPBES's Global Assessment and with other IPBES authors, I will use your support to convey the public support for continued and enhanced funding for IPBES to governments around the world.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Do wild salmon subsidize the aquaculture industry in BC?

AdultLepeophtheirus salmonis infesting juvenile pink salmon, Oncorhynchus gorbuscha.If these little guys don't survive, the sea lice on farms could evolve resistance faster.(photo: Alexandra Morton)
In our recent paper, just out in Conservation Letters, we make a case that wild salmon in the North Pacific might be effectively subsidizing pest control costs for the salmon aquaculture industry along the BC coast. How would wild salmon make a difference for pest control on farms? Usually we hear about the negative effects that farms have on wild salmon, but not about interactions in the other direction. This story has to do with the evolutionary dynamics of sea lice, small parasites that live on both farmed and wild salmon.

The idea for this paper started from a conversation with John Driscoll, my fellow PhD student in the lab. Because I have a bit of background in evolutionary biology, he was trying to get me to work on an idea he had. Basically, John said, BC is the only major salmon aquaculture region where sea lice had not evolved resistance to the chemical parasiticides used on fish farms to control them. BC is also the only place that still has large wild salmon populations compared to other major salmon farming regions where wild salmon either never existed, or have been nearly fished out. John's idea was that these two facts were connected: sea lice living on wild salmon comprise a susceptible pool which periodically mixes with populations of lice on farms (mature wild salmon migrating past net pens on their way back to their breeding rivers). The dilution of alleles under intense selection for resistance (on the farms) with alleles that aren't (from the oceanic pool) would change the predictions for the spread and fixation of the resistance genotype in the population as a whole, reducing the level of resistance on farms. Could this be the reason that farms in BC hadn't had problems with sea lice resistance?

We decided to reach out to Marty Krkosek's group, who are experts in quantitative ecology of sea lice and salmon in BC, to scope out the idea. It turned out that John wasn't the only person who had though about this. A current post-doc in the group, Andrew Bateman, and a former MSc student in Mark Lewis's group, Jaime Ashander, had worked on the same idea, and Jaime had already developed a genetic/demographic model for the mixing farmed and wild sea lice that showed the delay or preclusion of resistance evolution under various conditions. In addition to Jaime's model, there were a couple other models already published that also looked at the mixing of alleles between wild and domesticated sea lice but had not made connections to the ecosystem services and management implications of these evolutionary dynamics.

Life history of sea lice and salmon: when wild adult salmon migrate past salmon farms in late summer or fall they bring immigrant homozygous susceptible lice (blue) to farms. In winter, the farm population of lice is isolated and subjected to selection for EB resistant sea lice (orange). Migrating wild juveniles move past farms in spring, receiving sea lice infection from farms that cause wild salmon population declines, indicated by juveniles with an X.
After one editorial rejection at another journal and several iterations for Conservation Letters, the paper that came out of this collaboration is an interesting hybrid. It's a combination of a review of previous theoretical work, original modelling by Jaime, and global observational data on wild salmon populations and the occurrence of resistance. We end with conservation-focused implications for both wild salmon and sea lice management through an ecosystem services lens (though we stopped short of actually evaluating the dollar value saved by the aquaculture industry in BC - after a valiant effort).

If this process of seasonal allele mixing between wild and domesticated populations of sea lice is in fact happening, it is a case where the salmon aquaculture industry is both the direct beneficiary of, and a direct source of impact on, the resistance-mitigation service provided by wild salmon. The impacts of aquaculture on nearby wild salmon populations are well documented. In part, these impacts are due to the infection of young wild salmon fry that are heading out to sea with farm-origin sea lice at a life stage that they would not normally be exposed to them, causing higher morbidity and mortality than the normal situation where adult salmon are exposed to parasites out in the open ocean (see photo). By causing the population decline or local extinctions of connective salmon populations, aquaculture operations are not only causing harm to an important natural resource, they could also be cutting themselves off from the oceanic pool of susceptible sea lice that allow them to remain resistance-free. In the paper, we suggest several measures that would maintain this service, including reducing the infection rate of young wild salmon from farm-origin sea lice by correctly timing paraciticide treatments. Another idea is a payments for ecosystem services scheme that supports watershed protection/restoration around vulnerable populations. This sort of program could help reverse the decline of wild salmon populations near salmon farms, thereby serving a conservation purpose and benefiting the aquaculture industry at the same time.

This paper is the first well-theorized example of evolution generating an ecosystem service, in this case, resistance mitigation. This evosystem service involving wild salmon and their sea lice pests offers a pretty juicy counter-narrative to the conflict-ridden relationship between aquaculture and wild catch industries, maybe providing additional motivation for cross-scale conservation and management efforts. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Publication Milestone … and a Puzzle to Mind

By Kai Chan

A couple weeks ago, my 100th paper or chapter was published in the peer-reviewed literature. Why do I feel so contorted?
Kai, contorted, right from the beginning
of my time at UBC (and not always
happy about it!).

The short answer is that this milestone provoked a realization that I’m getting sucked in to a pursuit about which I am deeply ambivalent.
On the one hand, I believe strongly in the value of peer-reviewed publications as a means of fostering crucial learning towards a deeper and broader understanding of life on Earth and how we can sustain it along with human prosperity. When I’m interviewing prospective students to ensure a good fit between us, we talk about the purpose of academic publications. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but I know of no better way to contribute rigorously and reliably to the body of knowledge upon which human society fundamentally depends. If we’re doing research and scholarship that addresses important problems, we should do it with reference to what others have found—acknowledging explicitly how our research builds upon many important contributions from others. It seems fitting and important, then, to also contribute our learning back to that body of literature.
In those same conversations with prospective students, we also discuss the pitfalls of publication-motivated research. It’s a classic case of Goodhart’s Law, where the metrics of academic publishing (the h-index, i-index, impact factors, etc.) have become the targets of an academic career, thus somewhat perverting their utility. These metrics certainly capture some elements of excellence and of scholarship’s contribution to society’s needs. For instance, I’m proud of the role some of my best-cited papers with Terre Satterfield and others (e.g., this one) have played in helping enrich the dialog about culture and values regarding ecosystem services and the environment. But other papers of mine seem to get cited well despite much smaller roles in effecting change.
So success by metrics is not the success I seek. There are plenty of ways to pervert these proxies of academic contribution, for example by realizing success through the h-index, etc., but not achieving true success in advancing and disseminating needed knowledge. There are also endeavours that contribute crucially to society’s knowledge and use of this knowledge, but that yield little progress by these metrics. Much science engagement (public and policy outreach) goes unrecognized that way—more on that to come in future posts.
Those conversations with prospective students usually conclude with an asserted interest in publishing but also in guarding against Goodhart’s Law. My students and I are all committed to a reflective pursuit of academic success that also includes those activities that are important but not necessarily rewarded academically (e.g., engaging with policy makers, writing policy briefs and op-eds, joining environmental and social justice advocacy groups).
After more than a dozen papers published already this year, it seems pretty clear that I’m spending a lot of my time publishing and not nearly enough on my other sustainability-science passions, including CoSphere (a Community of Small-Planet Heroes …, to make it easy to have net-positive impacts on nature).
In my defence, this distribution of time is not a result of my making decisions in a vacuum to write papers and more papers. Every paper and chapter this year except one was led by others, generally my students and postdocs, who need these papers as markers of their excellence. Even the paper and chapter that I did lead were in close partnership with my students and postdocs, and I hope they will serve them well (both are also intended to advance CoSphere). But regardless of how I got to this point, it remains the case that I am spending so much time on the papers themselves that I have little time for CoSphere, or those other engagement activities.
I suspect I’m not the only one feeling this way. From our recent Global Young Academy survey (just submitted) and various conversations, I know that many of us are strongly motivated to ‘better the world’ through our science and engagement. But it seems that despite that motivation, a litany of invisible or barely visible norms and pressures are thwarting these good intentions—at least somewhat—and leading me and my colleagues to spend more time than we might easily justify on the pursuit of metrics of personal acclaim. (It’s clearly different for those seeking to get academic jobs or tenure, who have to play by the rules of the game—but as a full professor, that justification doesn’t apply to me.)
I don’t have any magic solutions, but for myself, I’m going to seek to right my course somewhat by diving into a highly practical applied sabbatical in 2018-9, perhaps in the seat of Canada’s national government.
How about you? Do you feel any unease about your relationship with publishing? Or not? Have you managed to align your passions with your actions? If so, please share your insights—for our sakes!