Governing food systems in a multi-stakeholder era, an example from Brazil

Food Governance

Is the Brazilian CONSEA a “multi-stakeholder process” or a platform for participatory politics?

By Matheus Zanella

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

We quick off the first post of the year by continuing with our third the thematic cluster: “CFS: Multi-stakeholder or multi-actor? And does it matter?”  In this post, Matheus brings us a national-level example, the Brazilian National Council on Food and Nutrition Security, aka CONSEA,  and argues that more conceptual precision is needed when comparing and assessing the transformative potential of multi-stakeholder platforms.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:

If you have been following the CFS and food security governance at the…

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Book recommendation: Resilience, Development and Global Change

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

I would like to warmly recommend Katrina Brown’s new book entitled “Resilience, development and global change”. I found it a thoughtful, authoritative book that links and transcends several deeply entrenched ideas and discourses. As such, I think it is an excellent input (or even entry point) for people working on social-ecological systems – especially, but not only in the Global South.

The book articulates different, partly conflicting understandings of resilience, both in science and policy arenas. This overview of existing perspectives is useful, simply because resilience is used in so many different ways, by so many different people, that it’s helpful to get an overview of who actually means what. A key point here is that in much of development policy, resilience is employed to argue for status quo approaches to development. Perhaps needless to say, that’s a long way from the paradigm shift some…

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Food security and biodiversity: presentation at Stockholm Resilience Centre

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

Last month I visited the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Among other things, I gave a talk on our food security and biodiversity research. The resulting video was originally posted on the Resilience Centre’s website. I am reproducing it here to give an update of where our work (and thinking) is at.

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The Open Source Seed Initiative

It’s #GivingTuesday! So please use that excuse–or any other–to consider giving to the Open Source Seed Initiative, where I serve as a Board Member.

Founded in 2014, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) is dedicated to maintaining fair and open access to plant genetic resources worldwide in order to ensure the availability of germplasm to farmers, gardeners, breeders, and communities of this and future generations. (From

You can donate here.

And re-posted below is a blog post from our Executive Director, Claire Luby. The original can be found here, and of course info to your heart’s desire can be found at the OSSI Webpage and Facebook page.

Free the Seed!


The OSSI Community continues to grow and thrive. We’ve been working with plant breeders and seed companies to expand the open source seed offerings available to gardeners, farmers and plant breeders of this and future generations. We currently list nearly 300 OSSI-Pledged varieties bred by 34 Plant Breeders and offered for sale by 38 seed companies! We’ve also been working on developing partnerships with organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange, grocery stores, and seed libraries to spread the word about OSSI and open source seed.

OSSI has received high-profile media attention in both popular magazines and academic journals. The major popular article features from last seed catalog season include:

These articles were deliberately timed to reach gardeners and farmers during the seed ordering season so as to create the optimal publicity for our seed company partners.

Our recent academic articles include:

  • “Open Source Plant Breeding and the Open Source Seed Initiative,” by Claire Luby, Jack Kloppenburg, and Irwin Goldman. Plant Breeding Reviews, 2016.

Forthcoming promotion for OSSI will include the release in December of a Peak Moments TV/YouTube interview with Carol Deppe, complete with OSSI songs. In addition, there will be a 4,000-word article by Carol in the Jan. (Seed) 2017 issue of Acres/USA on “Thirty-three Great Open Source Organic-Adapted Vegetable Varieties.”

We’ve made some new additions to our OSSI leadership team. We were excited to welcome CR Lawn, founder and CFO of Fedco Seeds, to our Board of Directors in winter of 2016. CR founded Fedco Seeds, a hybrid consumer/worker farm and garden products cooperative in 1978 and has been one of its managing coordinators since. He is responsible for much of the distinctive writing and vivid variety descriptions in the Fedco Seed catalogs. CR holds a JD from Yale Law School. His contributions include past membership on the board of MOFGA and as Chair of the Common Ground Fair Steering Committee. He was a contributing editor of Organic Seed Production and Saving by Bryan Connolly (Chelsea Green, 2011) and of The Heritage Grain Grower by Eli Rogosa (Chelsea Green, 2016), and has written and spoken extensively on topics of economics and issues around seeds, farming and genetic engineering. We are thrilled that he is bringing his extensive experience and wisdom to the OSSI Board of Directors.

In June, Claire Luby started as our first half-time Executive Director. Claire is a co-founder of OSSI as well as a member of the Board of Directors, and as an experimentalist, has provided foundation data and germplasm to guide the theory and practice of open source plant breeding in the future. Claire recently completed her Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her thesis focused on assessing genetic variation and freedom to operate in a large collection of U.S.A. carrot cultivars, the first such study to be conducted for any crop. In addition, in collaboration with Irwin Goldman, Claire developed eight intellectual-property-free populations of carrot germplasm based upon market and color classes and released them as OSSI-Pledged varieties, thus providing ideal sources of material that all interested can use to breed new open source carrot varieties. In addition to her Executive Director appointment, Claire continues her research on genetic diversity and intellectual property rights through her half-time postdoctoral position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Board Member Jahi Chappell recently moved from his position as a Senior Scientist and Director of Agroecology and Agriculture Policy at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, MN to being a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water, and Resilience at Coventry University in the UK. There he will conduct collaborative transdisciplinary research and connect with communities in order to analyze, coordinate, and develop actions and policies to create a sustainable, decentralized, and deeply democratic food and agriculture system. Jahi has also been busy writing his first book, Beginning to End Hunger, which will be published by University of California Press in 2017. Being based in the UK, Jahi will be able to better support our UK-based Seed Company Partners and explore greater cooperation with breeders, seed companies, and others in the UK and EU.

OSSI has wrestled with the question of whether to go with a fully legally enforceable Pledge since our inception. Ultimately, we decided on our current Pledge, agreeing that working on the moral and ethical plane best fit our style and values. However, we raised the question of the legality of our Pledge with our lawyers. They advised us that they believe the Pledge to be legally enforceable.

We have continued to work through how the Pledge operates on a practical level for seed companies and breeders. After consulting with our breeder and seed company partners, we have developed guidelines for contracts and licenses that protect the full rights of farmers, gardeners and plant breeders to use seed, but that also allow the sort of seed multiplication and benefit sharing arrangements that facilitate seed production. Our formal policy is as follows:

The Open Source Seed Initiative permits any contract or agreement for seed increase and/or benefit sharing for OSSI-Pledged varieties in which the restrictions on the use of the seeds are limited to the two contracting parties. OSSI does not accept arrangements in which there are restrictions on the seed that extend beyond the two contracting parties. Seed companies can pass no restrictions on to breeders or customers. From the point of view of breeders or customers, OSSI-Pledged varieties must be unrestricted.

What freedoms does the Pledge protect? In order to better communicate to a wide variety of audiences exactly what freedoms the OSSI Pledge is protecting, we have developed the “Four Open Source Seed Freedoms” to explain what it means for a variety to be released under the OSSI Pledge.

The Four Open Source Seed Freedoms are:

  1. The freedom to save or grow seed for replanting or for any other purpose.
  2. The freedom to share, trade, or sell seed to others.
  3. The freedom to trial and study seed and to share or publish information about it.
  4. The freedom to select or adapt the seed, make crosses with it, or use it to breed new lines and varieties

When you buy, grow, or breed with OSSI varieties, and when you pass the Pledge along with the seed, you are protecting, extending and perpetuating these four essential seed freedoms.

me-at-soss-trials-seed-mattersClaire Luby is half-time Executive Director of OSSI and half-time postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in plant breeding and plant genetics. Claire’s research examines the impact of intellectual property rights on freedom to operate for plant breeding. Claire is also a co-founder of the Student Organic Seed Symposium (Photo credit: Matthew Dillon)

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Preliminary findings: Woody plant diversity in cultural landscapes of southwestern Ethiopia

Interesting work and results from the Leuphana group (as usual!)

Ideas for Sustainability

By Girma Shumi and colleagues

The following is the first of a series of upcoming summaries of preliminary findings from our ERC funded research. Details are subject to change.

coffee gradient.png

Maintaining biodiversity is a global challenge. Some scientists have argued for strictly protected forest areas, while others have suggested that farmland also can have conservation value. To assess the conservation value of farmland and forest for woody species diversity in southwestern Ethiopia, we investigated six kebeles in Jimma Zone. We identified woody plant species in 78 randomly selected 20 m x 20 m sample plots in forest and homegardens; and in 72 randomly selected 1 ha sites in arable land and pastures. We found 96 and 122 plant species in forest and farmland, respectively. In forest, woody plant composition was affected by coffee management practices, current and historical distance to farmland, and the effort required by local people to reach a given site (so-called “cost distance”). Mean species richness ranged from 13 at the forest edge to…

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A Despot in America

Sage, somber thoughts from Bill Moseley.

African political ecology

I am despondent and in shock after Tuesday night’s election results in the U.S. I had thought I would wake up Wednesday morning with a narrow Clinton victory and a sense that America had dodged a bullet. A Trump win was unfathomable to me – and now I must contemplate the unthinkable: Donald Trump as my president.

What do you do when a narcissistic, racist, nativist, sexist bully wins the fight on the playground and seemingly half the crowd was rooting for him? The short answer is that you get up, think hard about what just happened, go back to work, and continue to fight the good fight. Nonetheless, I really didn’t need another existential reminder that the most qualified person doesn’t always win, and that fear, manipulation and power sometimes rule the day.

The charitable side of me would like to believe that this was a working class revolt…

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Re-thinking, re-considering, and chewing over Hildyard’s “Blood and Culture”



(c) Mark Fusco 2016. From the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s MultiCultural Festival 2016: ImagiNations Without Borders. See

This piece by Nicholas Hildyard, titled “Blood and Culture: Ethnic Conflict and the Authoritarian Right,” seems absolutely necessary for today.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and others are pushing back on the idea that the white working class support for Trump is primarily class-based, rather than rooted in racist and xenophobic resentment and fear. I’ve argued that they can’t be cleanly separated, which I’d think Hildyard would concur with. At the same time, he warned — way back in 1999! — that

Though necessary, the focus on the visible structures of economic exclusion (TNCs, neoliberal trade treaties and the like) has led to a partial obscuring of other, concurrent forms of exclusion — not least the newly-reworked ideologies which currently underpin and legitimise much discrimination.86 “Blood” and “culture” explanations of ethnic conflict are just two examples.

As a consequence, the ground on which globalisation is increasingly being challenged is ground that is as easily occupied by elements of the authoritarian but radical Right as it is by the progressive Left. The impression often gained is that the challenge to globalisation forms a platform shared by both Left and Right.

In reality, no such common platform exists: there are authoritarian responses to globalisation and there are progressive responses — and the two strands are confused at peril.

If I’m not mistaken, this is what Bouie and others (like my friend Stephen Robinson) are getting at, at least in part… that compromise and common cause cannot and must not be made with authoritarians around real and legitimate concerns and marginalization of many communities, including white working class communities.

A platform shared with authoritarian interests inevitably legitimises those interests, giving them a credibility that they might otherwise not enjoy.89 …such platforms send a public message to many groups who might otherwise be allies that progressives are prepared to set aside certain core issues (anti-racism, for example) in the fight against globalisation… the failure to place opposition to the ideologies underpinning social exclusion on a par with opposition to economic exclusion gives wider scope for authoritarian interests to shape the localisms that are emerging in response to corporate rule — scope which might not be so available if the focus of opposition was not concentrated so exclusively on economic exclusion.

Attractive — and necessary — as it might be to evolve as wide an opposition to globalisation as possible, it is surely also critical to have in mind where that opposition is likely to lead. The alliances that progressives enter into — albeit tacitly — will inevitably influence the outcome of their opposition. If they are serious in their commitment to “localisms” that are cosmopolitan, open and equitable, it is not enough to “talk the talk”. More important still is to “walk the walk” — for whom we chose to walk with ultimately plays a large part in determining where we end up walking. (emphasis added)

To elaborate on my confusion, this is a key element, to my read, of Bouie’s argument that “Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren Are Screwing Up the Resistance to Donald Trump”:

It seems reasonable for Warren and Sanders to make a distinction between Trump as blue-collar populist and Trump as racist demagogue. But that distinction doesn’t exist. Supporting a Trump-branded infrastructure initiative as a discrete piece of policy where two sides can find common ground only bolsters a white-nationalist politics, even if you oppose the rest of Trump’s agenda. It legitimizes and gives fuel to white tribalism as a political strategy. It shows that there are tangible gains for embracing Trump-style demagoguery. Likewise, it seems reasonable to want to recast support for Trump as an expression of populism. But Trump’s is a racial populism—backed almost entirely by white Americans, across class lines—that revolves around demands to reinforce existing racial and status hierarchies.

Where I perhaps started getting lost with the details of Bouie’s argument was the contrast he makes with Harry Reid’s statements. He quotes Warren:

“There are millions of people who did not vote for Donald Trump because of the bigotry and hate that fueled his campaign rallies. They voted for him despite hate,” Warren said in a speech after the election. “They voted for him out of frustration and anger—and also out of hope that he would bring change.”

And goes on

Both Warren and Sanders emphasize that bigotry was part of Trump’s message. But they want to separate the “deplorables” from the larger group of more ordinary Americans who just wanted a change of pace. And to that end, they both promise to work with Trump provided he chooses a populist agenda.

In contrast, he writes

There is an alternative to the rhetoric of Warren and Sanders that gets you to the same place without the same pitfalls. Following Trump’s election, outgoing Nevada Sen. Harry Reid issued this statement.

I have personally been on the ballot in Nevada for 26 elections and I have never seen anything like the reaction to the election completed last Tuesday. The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.

Reid continues:

We as a nation must find a way to move forward without consigning those who Trump has threatened to the shadows. Their fear is entirely rational, because Donald Trump has talked openly about doing terrible things to them. …

If this is going to be a time of healing, we must first put the responsibility for healing where it belongs: at the feet of Donald Trump, a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate. Winning the electoral college does not absolve Trump of the grave sins he committed against millions of Americans. Donald Trump may not possess the capacity to assuage those fears, but he owes it to this nation to try.

Reid doesn’t preclude cooperation; this isn’t a call for blockade. What the Nevada senator does, however, is center the fears and concerns of nonwhite Americans. He essentially offers conditional terms: If you work to reduce and repudiate the fear and hate of your campaign, then there is a chance to “move forward.” Otherwise, there are no deals to make. Reid’s statement has all the room you need for a populist message to working-class whites. But it makes that message contingent on buy-in for an inclusive agenda.

(I would have made all this shorter, but I ran out of time.)

I suppose the key element where I basically got myself lost is that I see little hope, and have little interest, in the tactics of individual politicians. I have only vague interest in what Warren and Bernie do — ok, that’s not true, I find them keenly interesting, and they obviously wield incredible influence, but in terms of addressing long-term structural problems, I look to their leadership about equally as much as I look to John Oliver, which is to say, far from zero, but not as my bedrock interest. But what I mean is that, party politics does not interest me as the way forward. I’ve long been very interested in the terms of decadal-level change. And while our current electoral system is part of that — of course — I tend to see it more as the object for change than the lever for it.

So while our politicians should not cooperate with Donald Trump without demanding a repudiation of his bigoted campaign and promises, I agree there, I also think we as citizens and communities do need to find ways to cooperate with those who may have voted for Trump. (I know, some of my smartest friends disagree with this and are skeptical of the tractability–if any–there is for supporters of Trump’s racism, misogyny, and demogoguery.) On the one hand, even in the most vicious and outwardly violent conflicts, you have to negotiate with–and eventually allow empathy for–those on a different side than you. An incredible amount of fiction (and nonfiction) has written about the parallels of treating one’s enemy as inhuman. After all, an enemy who is irredeemably Other can only be killed or vanquished, not negotiated with and eventually lived beside. And of course, the accomplishments of US Civil Rights movements–efforts which are obviously, painfully incomplete–did not occur based purely on ostracization of racists. While we needed rhetoric of not one single figure, but rather the likes of MLK, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, all, and more than them besides — that is, a plethora of approaches and analyses, and analysts and analyses that changed over time. While one could reasonably characterize civil rights advancements as “You’re either with [racism], or you will act with us against [it],” space must be made, at the same time, FOR this “acting against it.”

So that is where I slightly differ from Bouie’s analysis. It is not a contradiction, per se, but a difference in emphasis. While it is important how our politicians deal with Trump, to me, far more important is how we figure out how to deal with each other. We need more spaces and venues to talk — and deliberate and HAVE EFFECTS (e.g. change spending, priorities, and the like) — with those we may not already agree with. We need concrete opportunities where we can say “we are committed to supporting marginalized communities and have no place for racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, or heterosexism” but then the opportunity to show this commitment can actually lead to some kind of material effect. This work will be tricky, as it will require including, for example, Trump voters — to work with a community cannot be “work with the part of the community you identify with,” and we cannot approach it as “work with the part of the community you don’t have open contempt for.” Threading the balance–of building inclusive spaces, but requiring their foundation on shared dignity and substantive equality and recognition of difference–is INCREDIBLY difficult. But there are examples out there. And to my mind, how to create, maintain, grow, and EMPOWER them (e.g. with DECISION-MAKING power for policy and social spending) is the far more interesting, and in the long term clearly (to me) more important question than how our Senators should negotiate the important, but vastly unrepresentative and ultimately dysfunctional, halls of established power.

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Quick, quick analysis of recent events: Throwing a penny at the moon


Whaddaya think? This crown too understated? Anyway, our war with Guilder is gonna be YUGE. I will MAKE FLORIN GREAT AGAIN.

To say that post mortems/analyses of the recent US election are thick on the ground is like saying that throwing a penny at the moon is unlikely to move it — a bit of an understatement. But that’s not going to stop me from wading in as well.

Like many, I have lots of thoughts on the whole thing, many of which are contradictory. I’m not nearly as surprised as some, nor particularly peeved at (which I’ve read religiously the past months, and which predicted a Clinton win — but only at odds that gave her a 2 out of 3 or so chance of winning; in other words, a highly plausible forecast that still seems plausible from here!). But I am surprised. And while I felt like I could make some sense of the results, and support for Trump to a certain extent (e.g. “Why the impulse to vote for “That dude/tte I can have a beer with” makes sense: a progressive perspective“), there was some element of it I still couldn’t get. Why, no matter how “un-PC” he was, was Trump seen as a dogged, consistent truth-teller when his points were obviously improv’ed to calculatingly give himself whatever advantage? Why were his every vacillation allowed for, even while others were hammered for straying from their past stances and promises? Why was his obvious mendacity for his own ends not seen as reason to doubt that he was out “for the little guy”? And how could his sales pitch of bringing help to Whites feeling downtrodden work when they were also seemingly deeply skeptical of elites, when not only is he an elite, but his mantra is obviously “screw ’em if it suits me”?

Part of all of this, to be sure, is the difference in perception, media consumption, background, values, and attention between me and many of his supporters. But something more fundamental and, with regards to specific political issues, inchoate may be going on, something that comes out in this Guardian article, among many other pieces. That is simply this:

Humans have a deep-seated tendency and drive to punish breaches of community contracts, and are often willing to pay rather steep costs just to punish those they see as having transgressed and in danger of getting away with it.

In other words, we deeply want the “bad guys” to get it in the end.

Grandson: Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end. Somebody’s got to do it. Is it Inigo, who?

Grandfather: Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.

Grandson: You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?

The Princess Bride (1987)

While many on the Left might immediately associate Trump with Humperdinck, before his run brought all the attention his way (which is obviously his favorite thing ever and always), many on the Left and Right could continue to agree that Much Was Broken in Washington, D.C., if not U.S. democracy more broadly. Trump, who is the most hated major party candidate (and now President-elect) in the history of modern polling, managed to beat out Hillary Clinton, who is the second-most hated major party candidate in the history of modern polling. While I do believe some portion of the hate for her is misogyny, there is also much to detest within her own record (though I personally rated the verdammt emails pretty far down on that list, waaaaay after, say, her partial responsibility for the assassination of Honduran activists as a result of US support the Honduran coup during her tenure at State).

Without getting further into the details: beyond Sanders and Trump, there was plenty of evidence that many, many people are fed up with the political system as is, with business as usual, with the paralysis in many elements in our national government (leaving aside the source of this), with the perception (and reality) of corruption, special interests, rampant lobbying and cronyism, and lack of direct accountability.

Something like a quarter of his own voters reportedly viewed Trump as unqualified and of questionable temperament, and 17% of his voters said they were concerned or scared at the prospect of him as President. Further,

“The majority of voters had unfavorable impressions of both. Twelve percent of Clinton voters and 20 percent of Trump voters had an unfavorable opinion of the candidate for whom they opted. So despite their misgivings about the candidates, something still compelled them to support one of them.

Both candidates were seen as not being honest or trustworthy by more than 6 out of 10 voters. However, among white voters, 57 percent said Trump was not honest and trustworthy while fully 70 percent said the same of Clinton. Almost 3 in 10 white voters said neither candidate was honest and trustworthy. Among this group, Trump won 52 percent to Clinton’s 32 percent.”

Trump, in other words, won decisively among white voters who thought both choices were dubious.

Prominent institutional economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis wrote, nearly two decades ago, that

It is little surprise that people are more generous than economics textbooks allow; more remarkable is that they are equally unselfish in seeking to punish, often at great cost to themselves, those who have done harm to them and others…

…[people] are willing to incur a cost to punish those whom they perceive to have treated them, or a group to which they belong, badly. In everyday life, we see people consumed with the desire for revenge against those who have harmed them or their families, even where no material gain can be expected…

…the self-serving behavior of [a] minority… when it goes unpunished, unravels initial generosity and cooperation

The perceptions that some groups–minorities, immigrants, wealthy elites, and political power-brokers and politicians–have been the beneficiaries of self-serving policies and identity politics is powerful, persistent, and hard to counter, especially with the profound social distance (lack of contact with differing sociocultural communities) often observed in the U.S. Without direct, and perhaps sustained, social contact, it is hard to convince someone who thinks they’re being fleeced for others’ benefit that the “others” have not gotten undeserved consideration.

So while a lot is going on, and we’re still learning and understanding a lot of it, it seems to me that the narrative of “I’m going to punish Washington/politicians/undeserving Others” is an important part of it, and the lack of understanding on the part of some doesn’t just stem from being out of touch, but from the fact that human psychology tends towards over-active punishment impulses; impulses that may go beyond what is proportionate; are exacerbated by the sense someone “continues to get away with it”; are difficult to modify with evidence; are increased when leveled against an abstract “Them”; and may be undertaken even when risking costs outweighing benefits. In such a context, the apoplexy and disbelief of The Establishment on “both sides” is a feature, not a bug; and the fact that “their candidate” (Trump) may not even be dependable to bring benefits poses little obstacle if a big part of the point, alongside “shaking things up,” is to punish those who are perceived to have benefitted from resisting all attempted shake-ups before.

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Quick post: Not-so-deep thoughts on ecosystem services (and their possible folly)

Tons of ink — virtual and literal — have been spilled (spent?) on the term “ecosystem services,” its meaning, its potential, its value (rhetorically and economically). The original premise, as far as I understand it, is that we can’t easily manage that which we don’t value, and we can’t (at a large scale) value what we haven’t measured.

Thus, the cottage industry of analyzing the monetary values (usually) of various “services” provided to us by natural systems. Once we realize that we are running down our “natural capital,” we can begin to wisely manage it, goes the theory. After all, economics is the science of scarcity, no?

Well, I would say “no” to that last sentence in any case, but that isn’t even where the problem comes in. Consciously or not, I think many of the formulators and promoters of ecosystem services have perhaps taken market capitalism’s view of itself at face value. That is, one of capitalism’s many virtues is supposedly balancing supply and demand based on the cost of producing certain things, and the collective willingness to buy them at various prices. So if we can “get the prices right” we can create incentives for environmentally beneficial actions and systems, because people will see the value of natural ecosystems, and the dollar amounts we’re losing with various activities, and the system will come to a more appropriate balance, where we’re not tearing down our house to get materials to build an extension to it. (That is, so we won’t be expending our natural capital on further denuding and destructive ventures, but rather finding a way to balance the ability of “nature” to provide things we like, love, and need with the rate and type of things that can be provided indefinitely.) Richard Norgaard wrote a fantastic critical analysis of some key premises of ecosystem services a while back, while Vatn and Bromley emphasized that we can make “Choices without prices without apologies,” and Richard Wilk has some interesting things to say about the dynamics of supposedly renewable and non-renewable resources. But leaving aside these detailed critiques, let’s go back to the simple starting premise: if we know the value of ecosystem services, we can appropriately incorporate these values into our economic systems.

This seems like a simple misapprehension of, as I say, how capitalism actually works, and how it says it works. For example, studies in soccer (football) have led to some fairly compelling evidence that soccer team owners are essentially willing to pay a cost for racism (whether subtle/institutional/unconsciously or intentionally/consciously) because minority players are not recruited, paid, and retained commensurate with what they add to the teams they’re on. More to the point, it is clear that slavery did not persist as long as it did simply because slaves and slaveowners didn’t appreciate the price of slavery; women weren’t denied the vote and legal equality, and aren’t paid commensurate with men in many cases, not because markets don’t exist that could (in theory) accurately gauge their market value, but because of biases, the benefits to, and the power of certain people with biases and getting benefits to maintain such a system that incorporates them.

In other words, although folks like economist Noah Smith seem to increasingly be recognizing that there is life (and reality) beyond the realm of modern orthodox economics, there is still a skepticism that the raw workings of power are really a major factor “distorting” economic systems. But it would seem both no coincidence and not an exception that many people remain poor (or are made poor, i.e. “development” may cause “underdevelopment”) despite the fact that the vast majority would clearly desire not to be, and clearly would “pay” for a better quality of life if they had the means to.

And there’s the rub, no? The market allocation idea, insofar as it works, seems to only work if people (or other entities) have the resources to evince their demand. We can expand this beyond the market and say that, insofar as equality across groups and based on merit occurs, it seems to be when marginalized groups have the (sociopolitical) power to evince their demands. In economics, how much you can pay for what you want is “effective demand.” If you have zero dollars, then you have zero economic demand for food, all things being equal, no matter how much you want it.

So where does this leave us for ecosystems? Are they devalued, denuded, and destroyed because we didn’t realize they were valuable? With an exact price, can we better conserve them?

Ah, well, of course, we need markets to do that. Okay, so if we create markets, can that happen? Well…. let’s just say that the “markets” for slaves didn’t work so well at providing freedom, no matter how much the enslaved wanted it. The raw workings of power (which includes, but is not limited to money) made sure that slavery lasted despite the sincere desires of the enslaved to not be so. One imagines that if “true” markets for freedom had been established, that is, where any slave could buy their freedom, that still would not have provided a morally satisfactory result — e.g., the end of slavery — for a large number of real-world reasons.

What I’m trying to point out by evoking the powerful spectre of slavery, happily extinct as a large-scale institution in much, but hardly all, of the world, is that even having a market isn’t empirically enough to provide sincerely desired goods. As hard as it was for enslaved peoples and abolitionist allies to gain universal statutory freedom (de facto equality and freedom had another century or so to go in the U.S.), how much harder will it be for non-human actors — ecosystems — to achieve a right to life? A right to exist? They are paid, directly, nothing, and cannot demand pay in return for their value. Slaves were unequivocally providing immense economic value, but lacked not only the resources but the power to demand freedom, much less fair working conditions, and fair pay (in significant part because of barriers to collective action–which is to say, I’m not saying slaves were powerless to resist, or that they did not do so in important fashions). It required a major sociopolitical shift in the U.S. to end legal slavery; it required years and further shifts to end legalized discrimination and exploitation.

In what possible world is adding $ signs to the value of nature going to change the raw workings of power such that those profiting from environmental destruction will simply decide to make less profit?

It is not that the concept has no value, and certainly not that changing our current systems has no hope. It’s that I don’t know that we can reasonably hope that the reason for our environmental problems is inadequate market signs of value, rather than the sociopolitical power some have to maintain this system, and therefore we cannot reasonably hope that “appropriate” valuation of environmental problems and services will significantly convince, coerce, or co-opt those currently benefitting the most into change.

There are many ways to change the actions, limits, and distribution of power. Academic declarations and elucidations of the market economic value of ecosystems, say, without socio-political will, organizing, collective action, and persistence to change our governing systems isn’t… well, it isn’t worth the paper (much less the computer screen) it’s written on. (And if you want my opinion on academics saying “that’s not my department” and leaving all that wholly to others, see two posts ago.)

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Scicomm is not new

Nice piece briefly pulling together the long history — and inherent importance — of science communication.

Ecology is not a dirty word

‘Scientists shouldn’t have to do scicomm’ is a thoroughly modern misperception.

Communicating science has been ‘normal’ for centuries, from painted messages on cave walls, to classical orators and beyond. From ancient times, scientists took their responsibility to share science with people very seriously.

Yet today, mastery of language and the art of non-scientific communication are rarely taught or encouraged in modern science degrees. History isn’t taught much either.

Instead, many science students and graduates train to be skilled data collectors and ‘facts’ wranglers. Scientists are consistently bombarded with rigid anti-eloquence ‘rules’ that only succeed in suppressing the power of language – never use passive voice, don’t use big words, shorten your sentences, simplify your message etc. etc. God forbid you should sound like you care about your subject matter.

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