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.  

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.