Landscapes - The Dasgupta Review - [Janet Fisher] Transcript [ep.3]
*The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and comprehension
Adam Calo: [00:00:27] Researchers in the environmental sciences spend a lot of effort evaluating the diversity of frameworks that guide land use management.
Consider on the one hand making some change to the land based on a deep multi-generational local ecological knowledge, where wisdom passed on through narratives and myths instill a common sense about how to manage a local watershed for certain desired outcomes.
Compare this to the rise of computational and geospatial modelling software that predict environmental outcomes based on available data and guide land managers what actions to take, like what crops to plant and where, sometimes even integrated into modern industrial farm vehicles.
What academic preoccupations over such varying approaches tend to overlook, is the relative power different frameworks enjoy throughout history and across geographies.
I’d argue that big dog on the block when it comes to decision-making frameworks is encapsulated by the concepts of ecosystem services and natural capital.
In this worldview the pathway to conserving biodiversity and addressing environmental crises is done by translating the evidence from ecology, a science about the relations between organisms, into the language of economics.
Where a conventional approach to environmental conservation uses knowledge about how the biosphere functions in order to best protect it from irreversible destruction, the ecosystem services framework takes an addition step to understand how human endeavors are directly supported by ecological processes.
The new thinking offered by this paradigm is that properly valuing the complex ecological relationships that underpin human progress should reconfigure the types of economic activities that build wealth through rampant resource degradation.
“The pollination of bees is free, but no bee ever sent you an invoice." – notes Pavan Sukhdev, former head of World Wildlife International and a leading proponent of the ecosystem services and natural capital framework.
I thought it would timely to reflect on the rise to dominance of this conservation worldview, given the recent publication of the Dasgupta Review, an independent, global report on the Economics of Biodiversity commissioned by the UK Treasury and authored by leading environmental economist Sir Partha Dasgupta.
The review, in my opinion was widely applauded by the mainstream press and by conservation organisations claiming it provided an urgent call to use the power of economics to get serious about a green growth agenda.
But the publication of the report also revealed an acrimonious controversy between those who may embrace the logic of natural capital as the best, if imperfect, hope to motivate the business leaders who have real power to shape the environment and those who feel uneasy about ceding the terrain of environmentalism to the discipline of economics
Highlighting the tenor of this debate, George Monbiot, prominent environmental journalist, wrote:
“What Sir Partha Dasgupta promotes is a kind of totalitarian capitalism: everything must now be commodified and brought within the system. It extends the capitalist revolution even into our relations with the living world.We cannot defend nature through the mindset that’s destroying it. The notion that it exists to serve us and that its value consists of the instrumental benefits we can extract has proved lethal to life on Earth.”
As much as this episode will discuss the review in more detail, what I really want to accomplish is to use the report as a jumping off point into understanding how the ecosystem services concept works, how it has ascended to near universal adoption and what that means for scholars trying to think about new ways of landscape decision making.
To do this I needed a guide, someone who has studied the ecosystem services framework both directly as a policy intervention but also as a general theory of conservation philosophy found within high impact conservation non-profits.
Joining the podcast is Dr. Janet Fisher, an environmental social scientist, and a senior lecturer in the school of geosciences at the university of Edinburgh.
One of the high-level messages the authors of the Dasgupta report put forth is:
that to save the planet we need a new grammar to understand how our economic activities interact with ecological systems. What I think our conversation in this episode asks is: If indeed a certain grammar about how humans relate to the environment becomes dominant, how does that shape the possibilities for environmental action going forward?
Here’s Janet Fisher
Adam Calo: February, 2021, the Dasgupta Review is published. It's an independent global review on the economics of biodiversity commissioned by the UK's Treasury department. What the treasury department does is they tapped Sir Partha Dasgupta, who's an Emeritus faculty of economics at Cambridge to lead this review.
And I think it's a really interesting report. It was kind of controversial as these elements often are, and I thought you could be a really good guide in helping me and other listeners understand, , what's at stake and what's going on underneath the hood of this, this report.
Janet Fisher: [00:05:23] Great, yeah. I followed the coverage with interest as well. And I'm delighted to try and help you unpack that. There's a, there's a lot really in this, in terms of the ideas it draws on.
Adam Calo: [00:05:33] I should say that it a 600-page document and I've done my best to read, , as much as I can, but also a lot of commentary about it to try and understand what's going on underneath it. It's a really good diving board to kind of think about the broader ideology of frameworks to address environmental problems. And, and this one in particular, is through this lens of an economics approach to biodiversity.
Janet Fisher: [00:05:58] Yeah, I think that's right. It's kind of unashamedly using the language of economics and frameworks from conventional economics, although it's seeking to adapt them, I think.
Adam Calo: [00:06:09] What is this kind of report that the United Kingdom does when, , a government body taps an individual to produce a report that ends up getting a name on it and something that seems kind of unique to the UK.
Janet Fisher: [00:06:19] Yeah, it's interesting to hear you say that as, somebody from, the US. I mean, to be honest, I'd never thought about it, but you're right. That, there is a kind of political culture here, I think, in the UK of, putting a kind of authoritative name on a report. And I guess that intends to give it a weight and, and really authority in terms of how it's read and understood and assimilated into public life in some way.
Adam Calo: [00:06:47] So it's the treasury, it's not like they're going to tap an environmental social scientist to write the report for them. Instead they end up going with Sir, Partha Dasgupta. Do much about his academic background?
Janet Fisher: [00:07:00] I mean, he's an enormously decorated individual. I was having a look at his CV and, , he's held academic positions at very high profile institutions in the UK and the US. So LSE and Cambridge and many very high profile universities in the US where he's had visiting positions.
He's had a number of, what would you call them honors, in, in recognition of his contribution to different kind of articulations, I guess, of economic disciplines and he seems to started out, in development economics, but maybe increasingly engage with, environmental and natural resource economics, as well, as that grew up as a discipline, maybe through the eighties, nineties. And evidently, he was chosen as an authoritative figure, from that background in economics to try and translate, I guess, some of these ideas, around the application of economic thinking to the environment-- to diagnose some of the challenges we face and to bring on board … I guess it's desired to at some level, new constituencies in terms of corporate sector and, and government, to think differently about these issues.
Adam Calo: [00:08:18] I find interesting about his background from what I could read was his role in developing the field of Ecological Economics in particular. Because, just from my understanding of the field it’s incredibly divided in terms of where and how to use the tools of economics to understand the world.
And I think he kind of, comes down somewhere, perhaps in the middle—someone who is trying to use the tools of existing tools in neoclassical economics, but apply them to the new problems that environmental breakdown is presenting rather than trying to develop new tools.
Janet Fisher: [00:08:50] Yeah, I'd agree with that. I mean, I think I find the distinction between environmental economics and ecological economics quite a useful one to think about. And it's complicated and to some extent it's contested. But my understanding of it at least is that environmental economists tend to use relatively mainstream concepts of neoclassical economics and apply them to environmental questions.
Whereas ecological economists may be start with slightly different premises that the human economy needs to exist within limits that are imposed by living on a finite planet. Ecological economics, I think has slightly different kind of premises. And I was really trying to understand the background of Dasgupta in relation to this sort of dichotomy of environmental and ecological economics.
And I saw some slightly, maybe more critical coverage of the report from people who would identify, I think more as ecological economists. I think that's right, because as you've said, really, he's arguing that, we need to adapt some of the mainstream tools of neoclassical economics and environmental economics to face, I guess, new scarcities and new challenges that we face as a global society.
And I, interestingly, I think in the early stages of the report he makes a point though. I think maybe I'd never thought explicitly about that, , through the development of these neoclassical methods for economics it was reasonable to kind of approximate the idea that environmental limits weren't that pertinent to most, analyses, maybe in the 19th and 20th century, early parts at least of the 20th century. So, these methods grew up in a kind of atmosphere of abundance, I guess, where there were maybe more pressing issues that were motivating economists in terms of the development of their methods.
And then we're left in the second half of the 20th century in the 21st century, increasingly seeing problems of scarcity and over consumption that that has serious problems for the future of continuation of business as usual in society, as we know it. And so, he's arguing, I think that we need to adapt these methods.
He's not trying to bend them all and start completely from scratch, but he's arguing that we need to adapt these methods. But I suppose having his depth of perspective on the discipline of economics is, is useful to make those kinds of reflections.
this is obviously also a man who was born in 1942, right? So, he's seen the development of, of these disciplines through his own lifetime.
Adam Calo: [00:11:42] I'd like to get into a little bit about the feel of the report. This was the quote that got repeated a lot. And it's from the very beginning and introduction:
“We're all asset managers. Whether as farmers or fishermen, hunters, or gatherers foresters, or miners, households, or companies, governments, or communities, we manage the assets, we have access to in line with our motivations, as best as we can. This review pays close attention to a class of assets we call nature and studies it in relation to the many other assets in our portfolios.”
And this was the main quote that drew a lot of attention and it was something that kind of divided the people at my work at the James Hutton Institute, , in half, whether or not this was a good idea or a dangerous idea.
How do you feel about this kind of central analogy being pressed as one of the top line messages of the report?
Janet Fisher: [00:12:29] I see this idea of asset managers come up in slightly different ways in different iterations of this report. So, I think in the abridged version or the headline messages, it talks about, asset managers, more framed in terms of the decision-makers in corporations and government. Whereas the quote you identify, it explicitly references farmers, fishers, hunters and gatherers and, and, , people maybe further up the power ladder, as decision-makers, and it's a kind of interesting universalizing language, right?
We are, we are all asset managers. To be honest. I haven't seen myself personally as an asset manager, particularly. It raises a lot of questions I think for me. I think that universalizing language, tends to maybe de-politicize the idea that, societies globally and nationally are very unequal.
One of the manifestations of that is that some people have a lot of power to determine these sorts of questions that the review focuses on and others have very little power. So saying that we're all the same and we're all trying to achieve the same outcome in terms of good, sound asset management maybe denies the differences between us and the way that, exploitative systems have developed and, , characterize really environmental management and particularly, the management of commerce and extraction of resources.
I think it's also a very financialised language, right? And it's using this metaphor of an asset, to speak into the sort of language, I guess, that is deemed to be powerful in decision-making around these questions. In line with the whole motivation for the review, I think it's trying to bring in these ideas around natural capital and financialization and economics to our analysis of environmental problems. And so that quite striking quote that you talked about, I think is all part of that project of a language of very much economics based and financialization based as well.
Adam Calo: [00:14:50] So this is a great segue because I think what we really want to talk about is how this report is representative of a much larger movement in conservation philosophy, which revolves around the idea of ecosystem services and natural capital. And using that as a frame to influence decision makers and make change in how we consume resources and interact with the environment.
And you are someone who studied this in from a really interesting perspective.
Description of ES and Critiques
And so to start off, from your perspective, maybe you could try and help describe what are the natural capital and ecosystem services frameworks, and where did they come from?
Janet Fisher: [00:15:30] I can certainly have a go at that. I used to run a master's program, at Edinburgh in ecosystem services. So, I understand the origin of ecosystem services terminology in the late 1970s and maybe early eighties.
So key figures in this were, Westman and Paul Ehrlich whose work is attributed quite widely, actually in the Dasgupta report—
Adam Calo: [00:15:57] And also one of the people who submitted a praise in the introduction.
Janet Fisher: [00:16:02] Yeah, that's right. There's a quote from, Westman in 1977 in a paper, from Science I think it was, that talks about ecosystem services, I think for the first time. And it talks about society kind of inexorably heading in a certain direction. I mean, maybe I should just pick that quote out.
So Westman writes in, in 1977:
"In the quest to rationalize the activities of civilization, policymakers in Western societies have increasingly asked the monetary value of items and qualities formerly regarded as priceless. "
And the paper is entitled, "How Much Are Nature's Services Worth?" So, in a way I see this is one of the early formulations of this idea of services.
And the field of ecosystem services as a subdiscipline, and to some extent, it's like what people have called a boundary object. So this is an idea that lots of disciplines feel that they can speak to some element of. And I think in that sense, it's potentially quite powerful as a sort of interdisciplinary boundary object-
Adam Calo: [00:17:06] Also you have Gretchen Daily at Stanford, who was a student of Paul Ehrlich's and they often published together. Paul Ehrlich being famous for a lot of work, but perhaps the most notably for the book, "The Population Bomb.”
And then you have around the same time of Gretchen Daily explicating on ecosystem services, the Costanza et al. paper, which, attempted to value the world's ecosystem services. And, in doing so said, it's worth just a lot more than the total world's global GDP. And what you said, just there about it being a powerful boundary object that Costanza and Daily dialectic is kind of the environment economists and the environmental scientists coming together around this concept.
Janet Fisher: [00:17:51] Yeah. So someone said to me, I think as I was starting my PhD, that they thought this was a really powerful concept for ecologists and economists to get into the same room and start talking the same language. And in a way like the Dasgupta report is a manifestation of that, however long 40, 50 years down the line.
So, I think it's useful to think about ecosystem services as fundamentally both, utilitarian in the sense that it's focused on our use of nature. It's not talking about intrinsic value or ecocentric ideas. Substantively it's really focused on usage at some level.
And it's very anthropocentric, right? And, and that's evident in the definition, right? The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, published in 2005, uses this quite open definition: “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems.” So it's a very anthropocentric set of ideas. The Dasgupta review is framed very much in those terms as well.
Adam Calo: [00:18:59] How do ecosystem services get described in the literature? What are they, not to go deeper of what are they … ?
Janet Fisher: [00:19:06] Sure. There are several frameworks that people use. I mean, one of the most foundation I think is from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and it categorizes services into four categories. There are supporting services, which underpin the production of other services. There are provisioning services.
So, these are kind of quite familiar things that I guess in many cases happen to be commodities. So things like fish and timber and fiber, or other non-timber forest products. There are regulating services. So these are the services that underpin effective functioning of agricultural systems or water filtration or natural floods management.
I guess these speak to some of the kind of healthy functioning of, systems that we rely on. And then there's this kind of unusual category … or a category that people tend to scratch their heads over more, which are cultural ecosystem services. So I guess these can be defined in different ways, but I guess it's the non-material aspects of nature that we all at some level derive some benefit from. So, access to green space might be very pertinent for urban Western societies. Spiritual value is very rooted in the natural world in many different cultures and religions and Dasgupta makes that point as well.
And, , sense of place. Cultural geographers, some have interacted with these ideas of cultural ecosystem services and got on board with it and try to kind of modify some of the ideas associated with it to further insights into how humans relate to the natural world at some level.
So that four-part framework of the Millennium Assessment, I think is foundational. And then in the UK, again, there was a commissioned report, the national ecosystem assessment, that was a kind of national level spinoff of the MEA, the millennium assessment that further refined the way that we think about ecosystem services and develop this what's called a cascade model.
It has the stages of development or production of ecosystem services. It has sort of inputs of manufactured capital that might help society draw down on ecosystem services and it further refined the types of benefits. So talking about health benefits, financial benefits, wellbeing, benefits, well, there's so much to say, but, I guess ecosystem services in the MEA at least the millennium assessment was, very much highlighted as, as foundational to human wellbeing. And, and there's a kind of quite an iconic figure from that report, which put ecosystem services on the left-hand and then talked about human wellbeing using conventional, I guess, understandings of human wellbeing in various different parts, inspired by, Amartya Sen's work, particularly thinking about capabilities and non-material aspects of wellbeing. Cutting edge at the time, this was published back in 2003, 2005.
Adam Calo: [00:22:34] I think one of the classic ways that I was taught ecosystem services was as a decision-making framework, right? So you have this coffee plantation, in Costa Rica, say, and the productive area of the of the landscape is the coffee plants, but you also have some natural habitat around. The coffee farmer wants to clear that natural habitat so that they can make more coffee. But then if you use the ecosystem services framework, you understand that the pollinators coming from that natural habitat are providing a service to the coffee beans that if that habitat was removed, the farmer would have to end up paying in terms of either having to pollinate, manually, or just in a reduction of productivity because of the pollinators not being there. And therefore, presenting that information to that coffee farmer, they decide not to deforest, right?
And there's kind of a monetary evaluation, but it's more of just, kind of a heuristic to understanding what values are at play within a particular landscape.
Janet Fisher: [00:23:38] Yeah, that's right. And, and I think like you have outlined in that example and we could think of others about watershed management in, in New York state—that’s another very classic example. The upstream management really determines what happens downstream in the catchment in terms of water quality. And in a way, I think one of the very central motivations of the ecosystem services framework is to put things on the agenda that may go unaccounted for.
And this is a strong narrative in the Dasgupta report as well: The idea that lots of environmental benefits are public goods effectively, and they get taken for granted and never accounted for in the decisions that that humans make. So this whole narrative is to sort of put these things more on the agenda by measuring them effectively and incorporating them into decision-making.
Yeah, ecosystem services. I'd say it's really a plural field.
And I think it's important to note that right back to the start of these ideas, you were talking about Ehrlich and Daily and Westman. There is this kind of assumption that we need to sort of use the language of economics to understand these issues. And some have plowed on fully with that. And then to some extent, I understand the origin of the natural capital term and the framework associated with natural capital accounting. I think in a way that's a manifestation of the work of those who've sought to build upon the valuation, like monetary valuation, orientations of the ecosystem service framework.
They've developed this into a suite of natural capital accounting tools and it's very much kind of oriented around assets and valuation methodologies and things. Other manifestations of, of ecosystem services worker are very heterogeneous. And I think, like I was saying, some cultural geographers have got on board with cultural ecosystem services and, and had a go at thinking about that and further to my understanding the, the contribution of, ideas of that nature.
There's interesting and kind of innovative methods around deliberative valuation as well, which don't necessarily use any kind of monetary metrics for understanding value in nature. And it's much more about, deliberative fora for decision-making around the environment and, and grounded in an ecosystem service framing.
So I like to see the plurality in ecosystem services ideas. I think in many ways it's probably been quite an academic preoccupation; it would be fair to say. And I think maybe one of the explanations for the natural capital framework is that it, maybe the language of it is more evidently targeted towards financiers, the corporate sector and maybe treasury departments of government. I think natural capital has one set of issues associated with it. I would say ecosystem services still has quite a plural atmosphere in terms of the type of work that's done. Some of it very much assimilates evaluation, monetary valuation ideas, and others, essentially kind of looks at quite holistic ideas of wellbeing rather than just financial or income based ones.
Adam Calo: [00:27:07] In that example of the coffee farm, there is a clear valuation process because you have the price that you can get for a certain number of beans being produced and you have the number of beans that are pollinated and successfully become a sellable commodity, right?
So that's very clear, but then when you talk about valuation, you have to do some shadow pricing in a lot of these circumstances where if you're talking about a cultural landscape or an amenity value or something, the a beauty of a landscape, in order to actually get it into that frame. I can imagine it as a service in my head, just totally fine. There is no problem with that. But to actually get it into the kind of comparability, I might need to design some kind of survey that says, how much would you be willing to pay for a house if this lake was swimmable versus polluted, right?
And then work that into some of this cost. So valuation becomes a key element and area of research into evaluating all the different ecosystem services—the ones that are more prominent and kind of more hidden, and valuation is also an element that one of the main critiques falls upon.
Janet Fisher: [00:28:19] So if we think of your coffee example that the coffee is already a commodity, it has a market value, but the pollination services, typically have no marketable value in most societies.
So economists have kind of taken it upon themselves to try and provide some way of accounting for these things. They have developed a suite of tools for what you called sort of shadow pricing or a non-monetary or non-market valuation, I guess it's non-market more precisely. And so there's this whole suite of methods, I guess inspired by neoclassical economics that can be used to understand the, the value effectively, of a non-market resource.
And that's where a lot of =the energy is in things like the Dasgupta review. It's all part of a kind of rationalization of seeking to make visible the invisible, seeking to account for the unaccounted for. And, and I think you're right to say that it's this area that has, been contentious, I guess from various different perspectives about these sorts of initiatives, people who are highly critical of the idea that, if only we just put everything into financial and monetary terms, we'll solve all the problems of environmental degradation and under undermining of human wellbeing.
So yeah, there's a whole kind of lively and vigorous set of debates about the effectiveness of these methods of making the invisible kind of more visible in environmental decision-making.
Adam Calo: [00:30:15] Yeah. And I think one of the critics of evaluation is, if you're talking about valuation, value is something that is assigned societally right? And values are always contested. And when values are contested, it becomes about power relations. And thus who gets to decide what has value at what level?
Janet Fisher: [00:30:34] Yeah. I think that's a central concern of critics of these approaches that, if we put a price on these things then, ultimately, they will go to the agents or actors who can pay the most for them. And in a way that entrenches existing, social inequalities.
Adam Calo: [00:30:55] For example, if you look at that same coffee example, if the price of coffee goes down and it's more valuable to plant pineapple and you don't need that pollination service, then the farmers is going to destroy it ... the landscape.
Janet Fisher: [00:31:08] Yeah, that's an important concern with all of these things. If we stake out a case that nature provides these things to us that are kind of irreplaceable. And then we find a technological replacement effectively. Then we have completely undermined any other case that we might have made for nature.
And, and that's pretty troubling, particularly in climate terms, with prospects of various geoengineering strategies. If some massive technological advancement was made in that field, then overnight we could decimate the rationale we've been building up for the conservation of tropical rainforest is so important in regulating the carbon cycles.
Adam Calo: [00:31:56] One of the other arguments for the pro-column of the ecosystem services framework is that it is using the power, the demonstrable power, of market-based instruments. That markets have been the main tool to allocate value most equitably. And perhaps if you disagree with that, it's at least the language of power.
So it's a kind of strategic move to take environmental concerns away from an aspirational appeal to just protect or conserve and towards one to actually change the modes and the mechanisms of consumption and resource extraction.
Janet Fisher: [00:32:39] Yeah. I mean, I think there's been a current running through the framework, right from the very inception of it that is very motivated by this idea that, okay, we've already won over environmentalist's with ideas of intrinsic value and ecocentric imperatives. We now need to speak to broader constituencies- government business in particular, about the importance of these things for underpinning human life, ultimately.
How do we make the case more broadly than just the, environmentalist's?
Adam Calo: [00:33:13] Another big critique of the ecosystem services and then natural capital framework is, one of the core ideas of how capitalism functions is, it creates value where there was none by creating markets for things that were previously carried out through other exchange mechanisms. And then the capitalist imperative is to reduce the time or labor costs of the resource and then put it into circulation.
And that's how you get profit. To de-value labor in order to increase profit. For someone who is concerned about capitalism as a macro political economic system … that this just represents the further penetration of capital into places that it hasn't been. This is actually just incredibly, completely predictable in terms of how capitalist production works.
Janet Fisher: [00:33:58] Yeah. I mean, I strongly recognize that critique. And I think in a way it's a tussle between people who see themselves, maybe as pragmatically, promoting some of these ideas and those who call for just a completely different world order that is post-capitalist maybe, or doesn't rest so strongly on capitalist foundations.
And the tension between those two -- I, on different days I feel more like leaning in different directions. Sometimes I feel quite pragmatic and I think maybe some of these ideas have merit and, maybe it is important to have ideas of inclusive wealth in project planning at government level and account for these things that we have historically really ignored.
And other days I think, well, this isn't going to work and we need a completely different kind of foundation for an ecological and just society.
I think maybe one, useful insight, to some of these ideas is, that I believe it is different to undertake a valuation process where you are trying to account for different aspects of the natural world and show how they underpin different outcomes.
And there's a difference between doing that and promoting the commodification of the environment where you parcel bits up for sale and you might make new markets like the sort of things you were talking about. And we can see this in the carbon markets effectively. These are new-ish markets, 20, 30 years old at most.
There's a reinvigoration of energy around the carbon markets, I understand at the moment. There's been some recent kind of press coverage of this in the wake of the Dasgupta review and Mark Carney's role as a UN Special Envoy on climate and, and UK leadership of COP 26. These new commodities from the natural world and the financialization of these, in many ways, I find this very, very worrying, but I think is a different process to sort of parcel things up and commodify them then simply to account for them more fully, and show their importance in ways that have been ignored in the past.
One challenge I would maybe make to people who dismiss these ideas completely out of hand is to be a bit more careful about identifying exactly what is going on in these different processes. It's very difficult. It's very opaque a lot of the time, and it's a nuanced terminology that takes quite a while to kind of get to grips with.
But I think it doesn't make sense to me to equate quantification with valuation. They may be linked. Commodification might depend on valuation at some level, but they're not the same thing. And I think it is kind of disingenuous to equate them.
Adam Calo: [00:37:05] Right. And a lot of good work, looking at the empirics of some of these systems, even when they are kind of markets, maybe these payment for ecosystem services programs, they end up behaving not like a market and more like a direct subsidy. So, even though there might be some valuation of, for example, an upland farmers management practices and the way that influences downstream drinking water and you do some valuation, you're not necessarily just paying them for every management action they take. There's a general identification of different practices and then almost a redistribution of public money in order to accomplish those public outcomes, if you look at it in that way.
Janet Fisher: [00:37:44] Yeah. I mean, it's an interesting debate, I guess, focused around payment for ecosystem services as a kind of, market-based policy instrument, that although that's rationalized very much on a kind of neoclassical foundation of economics, it's a, what would you say, like a paradox or a quirk, that actually many of these systems aren't, that have been set up in practice.
Like, they don't bear a lot of likeness to a pure kind of market instrument. They're often state subsidies in some form or another.
Maybe because we're early stages with some of these ideas, some of the early foundations of the promise, the silver bullet of payment for ecosystem services have been kind of seen to be a bit naive, really. That these would be very self-sustaining, they wouldn't require any kind of form of government intervention in in these markets. And it would be willing buyers, willing, sellers exchanging and a more pure market-idealized form. And that's really not been the experience of these kind of mechanisms.
Adam Calo: [00:38:52] I think that's really interesting that there's something happening when you try to do all this work to create these new values. And it does take a lot of work in abstracting these processes of ecosystem services into a market. And then they need additional social attention to make them function as intended. I found this quote from Dempsey and Suarez, who wrote about the rather small impact of PES programs that act in that kind of full neo-liberal economic market way but in the end they said,
“To be clear, we do not suggest that neoliberal conservation is inert or benign because it is small. Rather we draw attention to how the relentless talk of selling nature to save it, although limited in the realm of actual accumulation, still has consequences, as it continues to reaffirm narrow anti-political explanations about biodiversity loss to reinforce neo liberal political rationalities among conservationists and to foreclose alternative and progressive possibilities."
So for them, they're saying, don't be so worried, like you said, about the total marketization of nature, even though these ideas are being expressed, like in something like the report. What they're concerned about is more of the type of thinking that closes down the possibilities for alternatives.
Janet Fisher: [00:40:09] I have a lot of sympathy with that idea. I think, in a way that the very prominence of the metaphor of economic value in nature is probably a lot more profound, particularly in the ascendancy it's had in recent decades. I think that those changes are probably much more profound than necessarily some of the limited policy approaches we see out there that are market oriented in their approach.
It seems like the metaphors that could be much further reaching if these ideas strongly dominate the way that we analyze problems in the environment and analyze environmental degradation. The sort of analysis that market instruments have a particular power to resolve environmental challenges. I think some of these metaphors, almost are responsible for the more profound changes in the way that these ideas are articulated in public life.
Janet's Work on Conservation Philosophies
Adam Calo: [00:41:10] Given the broad history of different conservation philosophies and then perhaps the recent rise to dominance of the ecosystem services and natural capital framework, how did that evolve and where where's the future going?
Janet Fisher: [00:41:30] Some of the research that I'm most excited to have done in the last few years has been looking at conservation philosophies and trying to characterize them and trying to identify the kind of key differences between them. With collaborators we've developed quite a kind of granular tool for identifying different ways of conservation thinking. This has been called the Future of Conservation Project. And it's a global survey that has something like 16,000 respondents of conservation professionals around the world. There's, important biases in that dataset, particularly it's quite Western oriented.
It has a very Anglophone bias, although we have different languages now represented in as options in the survey as well. But we were keen to identify debates and identify different positions within debates that were taking quite a lot of energy and momentum in the international conservation arena.
Some academics in 2012, published what they called a new conservation manifesto and it kicks around some of these ideas that we've been talking about, natural capital and economic metaphors for rationalizing conservation, and their publication of that manifesto set up a kind of quite acrimonious, in a way, debate between what I characterize as a bit more traditional approach to conservation: prioritization of ecocentric ideas in particular, some skepticism, I guess, of economic metaphors in environmental management—
Adam Calo: [00:43:17] Is this Peter Kareiva who was at the time the, the executive director of the Nature Conservancy?
Janet Fisher: [00:43:22] That's right. It was Kareiva and Marvier, published in 2012, that “agenda for new conservation.” That sparked a series of quite high-profile to-and-fro in the in the academic journals about the proper of conservation to some of these big ideas in the 21st century.
What Karieva and Marvier described as new conservation, very much assimilates I guess some of the philosophies of ecosystem services ideas that we were discussing. So very much a kind of anthropocentric case needs to be made for conservation. And again, they're very highly motivated, I think, that the proponents of that approach speak beyond the community of conservation and to speak to other sectors and build a constituency for conservation. It has other ideas embedded in it as well. This kind of new conservation, it's quite open-minded about non-native species. It's inclined to kind of be not so bothered, maybe, about protected areas or so-called wilderness areas.
It's more interested in interspersing benign environmental outcomes in multifunctional agricultural landscapes. So it's interested in interspersing slightly better conservation outcomes through broader landscapes, including agricultural landscapes and not so fixated, I guess, on protected areas as maybe some of the more traditional conservationists, tend to be.
The new conservation debates are the foundation for some work we later did to characterize these ideas and identify different positions on three dimensions of conservation thinking. And those three dimensions we generated from this data set of thousands of conservation practitioners around the world.
Partly inspired by some of this work with the Future of Conservation survey that people who've used that within the group that they're working with, they've written to us and said, this provoked some really interesting discussions in our team and made transparent the differences maybe we have in how we see these issues and gave us some kind of traction for talking about the differences.
And I'm interested in the idea that if you make transparent the different positions that people have in these kinds of debates, can you use that as a platform for a more productive deliberation about the future? And making the positions more transparent, can that give you a basis for working together to accept differences and come up with some kind of compromises and use deliberation in that way?
Adam Calo: [00:46:11] I think that actually provides a practical area of work and a piece of evidence against a homogenous framework for landscape decision-making perhaps the natural capital ecosystem services framework, where if there is space for multiple values to come to the fore to deliberate, then you can actually get at some of the core lock-ins that prevent decision-making in one direction and then open up alternative futures.
Janet Fisher: [00:46:36] I think the scope for deliberation to allow different views to be represented is really exciting. And to come up with new possibilities from a deliberated kind of basis, I think is going to be a productive area, given all the changes in land policy frameworks that we're kind of living through at the moment.
I think in a lot of payment ecosystem service programs, the monitoring is very, expert led and technocratic. And in a way that's disempowering for farmers or land managers, sorry, land managers or land stewards who are at the receiving end of this in terms of selling some kind of ecosystem service commodity.
Adam Calo: [00:47:23] It places the core responsibility of making valuation into the hands of experts, even deeper. And if I'm concerned about power relations, you can have kind of these tools of mapping, the InVest software, the types of geospatial science and modeling to describe, well, actually this is the value of what's happening on your plot of land.
And if you have these other types of knowledge, how does it compete?
Janet Fisher: [00:47:46] There's interesting work I've been aware of the last year or two, particularly Geoff Wells, someone I've collaborated with, has thought quite hard about different monitoring models in PES and what monitoring might be more accountable to those at the land interface of these, types of policies and how you promote strategies that give more power to those managing the land in terms of monitoring in what can be a very opaque process, for them in particular, because it's so opaque.
What I'm really interested in is there should be enough evidence now from where evaluation studies have been done, to ask the question, did this really change the orientation of decisions that were made as an outcome? And, I don't know of any work on that front. It could be an empirical question. Like, how far does evaluation process and monetary evaluation processes change people's decision-making?
Adam Calo: [00:48:47] One of the threads that I saw in this paper, but also in some of your other work is, so what if these—the conservationists, these academics, have different visions of what is the best way? And particularly, I'm thinking about this paper that you wrote with Katrina Brown: “Ecosystem services, concepts, and approaches and conservation: just a rhetorical tool?
What happens and, and why are conservationists, choosing these different types of allegiances, these different visions about either the best or the most moral or the most pragmatic approach ostensibly geared towards achieving outcomes in terms of environmental resilience.
Janet Fisher: [00:49:26] That just a rhetorical tool paper, that title came from an interview, where I was interested to investigate how large international conservation NGOs were adopting ideas around ecosystem services and how they interpreted their own adoption of these ideas.
And I think, like is born out in our earlier discussions, many people recognize the kind of plurality of possibilities that the ecosystem services framework offered a conservationist, but, definitely the kind of overriding motivation for adopting these ideas was one of broadening a constituency, speaking a language that was acceptable in other sectors around assets and capitals. And making the case for conservation in those kinds of economic terms.
By far the major motivation for conservationists in picking up these ideas was, this idea that it could lead to a very strongly improved conservation finance. So these are ways of generating sustainable market-based funds for achieving conservation outcomes.
Interestingly in that interview where the title came from, just a rhetorical tool, I was having an interesting discussion with one of my respondents about, well, It's almost like the person had sort of denied that this was really changing their practice. Although he was very high on expectations potentially about the possibilities it gave them in terms of new financial flows and new constituencies that they could speak to. He said, “well, it's just a rhetorical tool you know. At a fundamental level, we believe in a kind of ecocentric conservation, but this just allows us to speak to different constituencies. And, and it's almost like you're sort of dealing with those two things.
I guess, like Dempsey and Suarez, in this work I was trying to problematize the idea that you can strategically adopt these ideas without them really having more profound implications for your whole kind of raison d'etre as a conservation organization and your practices as well as the sort of policies that you're pursuing.
In a way that work speaks to a particular time, maybe when there was a particularly high expectation around finance generated by international PES. And then maybe that hasn't really been born out in reality. But we're seeing that again now with this Dasgupta review and all of the kind of contemporary policy processes that put a lot of emphasis on carbon and other ecosystem service markets to redress some of the challenges that are identified in the past around not accounting properly for these benefits from nature.
Adam Calo: [00:52:21] I mean, I think that's a really fascinating point. Some of the early scholars who wrote about ecosystem services have bemoaned that—it was always supposed to be a metaphor. How come, you're not supposed to actually go and measure this stuff! That's impossible.
It was supposed to be like, wake up, our economic system, if you view it through the ecosystem services thing, is going to destroy everything, not to actually try and fix it through markets. But clearly, there's a connection between the grammar that's used and then material changes.
And you mentioned this in that same paper, the funding landscape for researchers. I find it in my own work too, if I'm starting to describe something… Yeah, maybe I'll throw in ecosystem services in there, when I'm really talking about something else and that you see kind of a shift, a rhetorical shift towards framing the entire work of research into social environmental factors, social environmental change, agrarian change, political and social questions, into the framework of natural capital in order to get to get that funding.
Janet Fisher: [00:53:25] Yeah. Speaking from experience of applying for lots of grants through the years, I'm not above trying to make strategic arguments and use in vogue concepts to try and highlight the importance of some work I'm trying to do. We have to hold our hands up, I think, and have some sympathy with conservation organizations who are sometimes adopting some of these ideas quite strategically without necessarily recognizing the more profound implications it might have for what they're doing.
Adam Calo: [00:53:56] Some of the biggest detractors of the ecosystem services concept like you said, they tend to focus on payment ecosystem services. I'm thinking about Bram Bücsher in particular, and coauthor Robert Fletcher who write consistently from an antagonist point of view.
From an example of a paper that they wrote, which is entitled The PES conceit:
“We need to move away from market-based instruments, even poorly functioning ones altogether and instead pursue forms of environmental management that promote cooperation and that in turn are guided by the logic of gift, reciprocity and affect and that celebrate the joyful and life-affirming aspects of conservation care labor. “
So they kind of are trying to present an alternative to that traditional conservation and the new conservationists, saying both are misguided, but what, what would you say to them?
What is the future of PES? Is there a defense of perhaps a simplified PES that can accomplish objectives?
Janet Fisher: [00:54:56] Yeah. I mean, in a way I think their critique goes to the two ,stereotype maybe, futures that I wrestle with, whether to pragmatically try and, alter the system we inhabit to have better outcomes for society and environment or to envisage a completely different set of possibilities.
I see a lot of potential in some aspects of the ecosystem services framework for thinking very clearly about, links to human wellbeing. To be honest, I'm relatively skeptical of payment for ecosystem services instruments in achieving maybe all the early protagonists thought they could. I think market instruments are fundamentally limited in terms of the achievement of social equity and I think a lot of the research on PES shows that. It does also concern me that the way these metaphors and the intrusion of kind of a market-oriented language into the environmental sector. That does trouble me.
I guess I have sometimes taken the view, that payment for ecosystem services tools … they're out there and they're being used and many of my have, have really, I think, taken the view that if these things are going to happen beyond our control, largely, as researchers, are there ways of mitigating some of their kind of worst outcomes? Are there ways of developing approaches to this sort of policy mechanism that can promote slightly better outcomes in terms of social equity?
I mean, that's the key one for me. I've seen the very real kind of inequitable outcomes of some of these mechanisms, particularly in terms of their manifestation in parts of the global South. If you see that really, it's only a kind of local, wealthy elite, that are making much form these programs and some people potentially stand to get dispossessed because of land consolidation that's partly related to a PES program, then I think we did need to look with a very careful lens about what these sorts of instruments, imply.
We can't use the argument that any transfer of funds to the global South is by definition good. If it's promoting inequity locally, then to my mind, it's problematic. So, I'm interested in debates about how PES could be better, given that they probably are going to keep persisting, particularly with the sort of traction that the Dasgupta report gives some of these policy ideas.
Adam Calo: [00:57:54] I can bang my fist on the table and point out kind of a Marxian critique of how these things abstract value, how they kind of ignore the root causes of the problem. But then, it's like, this report is sponsored by the UK government. If you look at the new Environmental Land Management scheme that is supposed to replace the Common Agricultural Policy post-Brexit, it's following this logic of payment for farmers, right? You have kind of general acceptance that this is the way forward.
Do you decide to be someone like Dasgupta and be kind of an environmental economist to try and use the tools that you have? To try and bring in those externalities into the market, into consideration? Do you maybe, perhaps like what you're saying, become an environmental pragmatist and ask how can I achieve equity and well-being within these tools that are being put into place? Or do you consider … do you look to these radical alternatives and continue to advocate for them?
Janet Fisher: [00:58:53] I don't have a kind of answer to that question. These are the tensions, I guess, that motivate a lot of my work and that keep me up at night to some extent. Quite how we see our own place within this tussle, I think is, is really important. Where there is scope to use different metaphors and different premises than the very dominant financialized and asset-based ones, I think that's fantastic. But I think we do have to recognize that to a large extent time is against us on many of these questions. And I do find the idea that we need to work within the current system and try and modify it relatively compelling, given the urgency of some of these challenges.
Dasgupta Review in Context
Adam Calo: [00:59:41] Thanks for your explanation, Janet, we now have an understanding of what ecosystem services are, how natural capital frameworks kind of spawned from them and how conservationists are deploying these terms. That leads to the report. In your opinion, does the Dasgupta report break any new ground in this conversation, or just kind of, deepen, its commitment to this “new conservation” model.
Janet Fisher: [01:00:08] I think it's important to think about the target audience of this. And I don't really think this report offers new methods particularly, or even a new narrative. I think it just tries to make that narrative, to broaden the constituency that cares about the environment. And I think it's very much targeted to kind of high-level decision-makers- corporate sector, government- to make a case in what's sought to be an authoritative way that uses authoritative ideas around neoclassical economics.
So, I don't think it's transformative in the ideas behind it in any sense, it's targeted to broaden the constituency, I think.
Adam Calo: [01:00:55] I thought it was interesting … I was watching the release video and the first question was, if someone reads the report, what's the one thing you hope to that the report accomplish. And Dasgupta responded, “I hope that economist listen to it.” Suggesting just like you said, that this is a strongly audience-driven type of document.
And perhaps that maybe explains why some things were left out or not explored? One of the things that bothered me was this assumption that nature is silent, mobile, and invisible. And that's why the tools of economics have failed to see it, or to represent it.
And that our markets have not captured that. So we need new economics to speak for nature. In my opinion, it didn't explore it all capitalism—the word capitalism only occurs once in the whole 600 page document. So it doesn't explore the idea that there's an unequal consumption through capitalism that that has purposely used the depreciation of natural resources and the wellbeing of human labor for certain purposes of profit and accumulation.
Not that there is a kind of an error of accounting.
Janet Fisher: [01:02:09] Yup. I think that's right. Going back to the silent mobile and invisible set of ideas, I mean, in a way that is another reiteration of this central idea of ecosystem services that many of these things are non-market and therefore they go unnoticed they go unaccounted for. The externalities are born more generally in society because of these aspects of nature.
Adam Calo: [01:02:35] But maybe if Dasgupta starts talking about precisely who has benefited it would turn off the audience, or he can't turn that into the treasury I'm not sure.
Janet Fisher: [01:02:47] There's a really telling figure in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that has a chart and it has monetary evaluation studies that have tried to tot up the kind of value to society of both intact ecosystems and degraded ones.
And it shows every time that an intact ecosystem provides more value to society. And I agree with that. I think the elephant in the room is that the degraded ecosystem, often a private beneficiary has extracted value from that for a private motivation. And the ability to capture that value has motivated the environmental change in the first place.
The report, I don't think really addresses the kind of power relations that explain why private economic gains can be made from the environment at the expense of public benefits and often, those at the sharp end of this are often people in relatively resource poor settings who stand to lose, the most in terms of livelihood resources.
Adam Calo: [01:03:52] And then in the broader equation that the report puts out, this “Impact Inequality” equation that looks at trying to show that the rate of consumption of the human population, moderated by the efficiency of consumption is just greater than the rate of regeneration of natural stocks.
And that's the problem.
But it homogenizes all of the human population into one variable. When in fact, certain humans in certain nations have been using resources at much greater rate, to the disservice of other humans elsewhere.
Janet Fisher: [01:04:25] I think that differentials in consumption between the kind of super wealthy and the wealthy and the more marginalized, in parts of the world. I think that could be much more prominent if you took a kind of environmental justice approach to all of this. It would put emphasis on very different drivers of some of these challenges.
I guess it's, again, it's about the audience and the message, but it's probably not palatable to the sorts of actors that this report is targeted at to make big kind of justice claims or big political claims about redistribution or North-South differentials in consumption or wealthy and marginalized kind of differentials in consumption.
Depending on your analysis, you could come to quite different conclusions maybe than this report does.
Adam Calo: [01:05:15] I was looking for positive things to say about the report. The treatment of values I thought was, fairly nuanced, particularly for an economic text with that audience in mind. And the report talks about how, we need to improve valuation massively. But also that some things are always going to be really difficult and impossible to value. And that means that we shouldn't always use price or a tax. And sometimes we need what the calls, or the authors call, quantity restrictions, which would be, more back to that old, conservation paradigm, a sacred area that is not, or is never extracted.
Of course, that then brings up that need to center power relations, because who gets to decide what's sacred and not is not necessarily put forth in the report, but it is recognized the kind of limits of the evaluation process to deal with a world in which values are socially constructed.
Janet Fisher: [01:06:16] I think that's probably an important thing for the report to have done. To have tried to tread some line between the sorts of dichotomies we've been thinking about—to commodify everything versus to have a radically different kind of world order. I think taking some aspects out of the general narrative of the report that, a more extensive valuation is required to account for aspects of the environment that don't get accounted for. Taking some aspects of out of that proposition I think is, is a useful thing for the report to have done.
Adam Calo: [01:06:50] One of the other interesting aspects of the report that I saw was the treatment of GDP. There is a strong recommendation to use GDP if you want to do short-term, macroeconomic analysis, but to do away with it entirely if you want to understand what direction we should move national economies in the long run.
The report instead tries to create this idea of an inclusive wealth. If you measured inclusive wealth and replace that instead of GDP, then you have a better definition of sustainable development, which previously has been very amorphous. Let's say nations heed this advice, what would that look like and what might that change?
Janet Fisher: [01:07:29] I do think, if the conclusions of the report were really implemented in a committed way by national governments, it could be pretty transformational. I think the critiques of GDP are so well-known, so familiar in a way. It's such an inadequate measure for any kind of notion of progress, particularly one that takes in more holistic conceptions of human wellbeing and environmental quality or health.
If we really did inclusive wealth accounting and countries were able to implement this into their project and kind of program planning—frameworks for a much more holistic accounting process, which did take account of environmental degradation and put that on the agenda in relation to investments in industrialization, let's say, that could be very profound. I don't want to undermine how profound that could be. I guess it remains to be seen whether countries are really willing to transform the way these things work. Partly because of the vested interests in the drivers of environmental degradation.
It just remains to be seen how far really, even the UK government who commissioned this report is prepared to go with it.
And I guess, there's one school of thought that says, well, you commission a report because you want to look like you're dealing with something and adopt the rhetoric of some of these ideas without actually implementing any changes in the way that you operate. So it could be a kind of, green-washing tactic to look busy without actually changing anything.
Adam Calo: [01:09:21] Wow. That's very cynical! I appreciate it. Well, one of the things I noted was in the release video of the report, Boris Johnson, the prime minister was there, touting how great the report was. And he said, "There are those that say that the global economy and the natural world are at the opposite ends of a Seesaw. And for one to go up, the other must inevitably decline. I'm very pleased to say that with the release of this report Sir Partha Dasgupta has well and truly knocked that myth on its head."
And I was thinking that's not the, of what the report says! That sounds like, Yep, now we can continue to go do business as usual that we can grow and we can be green and thank you very much. So I was very concerned, that when you choose, as the report says, to try and make a new grammar of economics, but if it's still the grammar of economics, you end up allowing that move for nations to take.
Janet Fisher: [01:10:13] I agree with you. I'm highly skeptical of, of Johnson's analysis of this. Because I don't think the profoundness of the suggestion to do our accounts very differently .. I don't really think that is being seriously apprehended in the way that the report has advocated.
Adam Calo: [01:10:34] Getting back to the very beginning, this analogy of becoming asset managers, in which we include the environment as one of our most precious assets. Because when you think about portfolio management, I don't know if that's the best metaphor to be using in terms of how to responsibly take care of things. An asset develops wealth by holding it and controlling it and seeking rent from it over time and into the future.
And so if there really was kind of a deep measuring of natural capital stocks, you would see, I think, you would see that flow—almost a rapacious flow—of value of those assets from point A to point B. Point A being marginalized and devalued labor to point B being, global elites.
I think there would be actually something profound, like you said , if it was possible to do that kind of evaluation completely, you would see not just better ways and different pressure points to reduce our impact on the environment, but also who is benefiting most from resource extraction.
Janet Fisher: [01:11:40] Yeah. I think, without addressing the kind of powerful interests that, in many ways, many places are kind of implicated in environmental degradation we're not going to see many changes and lots of powerful and wealthy interests are highly invested in the status quo. And we shouldn't forget that.
Adam Calo: [01:12:05] So going back to what the Prime Minister said, If this type of reasoning is the default and you and I are both involved in this Landscape Decisions Programme, which has this idea of trying to improve management—In fact, assets is in the tagline of this research program “How to better manage the United Kingdom's assets.”
And we have this dominance of this one framework that might be contested within conservation and academic circles, but seems to be increasingly accepted within high levels of government, within the nonprofit sector, and increasingly with business, what should we do? How do we improve landscape decision making within that sense of dominance of the ES framework?
Janet Fisher: [01:12:48] At every step and every opportunity, I try and keep that plural set of understandings around the ecosystem services framework on the table. And I know a lot of maybe particularly ecological economists are motivated to do the same. The framework, I think, has a lot of merit for thinking quite broadly and drawing on different disciplinary expertise.
But if we always communicate it in a way that fully adopts those, very financialized metaphors, then things will drive in that direction and we'll become complicit in the assimilation of many of these assumptions and metaphors and ideas in public life.
So I think, using the framework in diverse, plural and non-monetary oriented ways, I still find very appealing. Although I recognize it has dangers. Keeping kind of plural definitions of human wellbeing on the agenda as well. Diverse kinds much, much further than income oriented … Looking at satisfaction, looking at freedoms to act and to determine environmental futures, health aspects, some of which might interface usefully with aspects of economics, but others of which won't. So, keeping the kind of plurality of ideas in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment on the table, I think is the way I want to approach this going forward with research.
Adam Calo: [01:14:20] I think it's a nice way to think about how to go forward as a researcher. To one, not necessarily just blindly accept this language, even though it might be attractive in terms of funding resource and within kind of other institutional logics of what is “good science.” But also that there's a lot of room to test, well, what actual outcomes are achieved and who benefits? That's the social science standard question is, who benefits from this stuff? Not just what is achieved and that kind of allows for, by its own logic, do these approaches actually change the status quo in the ways that the proponents of it suggests that it will?
Janet Fisher: [01:15:06] Yeah. And there's enough of these approaches that have been used for years now, sometimes decades that we can look at this as researchers and draw conclusions from the implications of some of these approaches, now. And maybe it's incumbent on us to do that work to show where these ideas are driving us and what their implications are and what their outcomes are.
Adam Calo: [01:15:29] I think that's a good place to end. Thank you, Janet so much for having this conversation.
Janet Fisher: [01:15:34] No problem. It's been a pleasure