My research traverses three interconnected themes. The first is capitalist natures; I am interested in the forms and functions nature takes under capitalism (e.g. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 2017). The second is an interest in colonialism and the politics of nature; I investigate how environmental problems and solutions entwined with colonial histories and presents. This work builds upon over a decade of work researching and working in the uneven power dynamics of international environmental law and policy and in the settler colony of British Columbia (e.g.Annals of the American Association of Geographers 2015). The final theme aims to open windows on questions of power, knowledge and environmental issues, interrogating the relationship between ecological science, economics and environmental politics (e.g. Geoforum 2011). Overall, I am committed to collaborative, ‘on the ground’ research conducted in close conversation with the insights of social theory.
Major past project: Deconstructing Market Imaginaries of Biodiversity Loss
My book, Enterprising Nature, traces the drive to produce a nature that can prove its worth in economic terms – that can compete in the marketplace and the cost-benefit accounting of modern governance. In the book I show that – despite the spread of enterprising discourse and practices – enterprising nature remains a promissory discourse. Thus, the story told in Enterprising Nature is not one of triumphant ascent but one of enormous challenges: technical, scientific, and political. The book won the 2018 James Blaut award for innovation in cultural and political ecology.
This project and a broader interest in how living beings generate economic value – “lively commodities” (see Environment and Planning A 2013) sparked a communication project funded by SSHRC: the “Bioeconomies Media Project” (www.bioeconomies.org). In collaboration with environmental justice organization ETC group, Rosemary Collard (SFU, Geography) and I produced a website and animated videos on ecosystem services, the live wildlife trade, and synthetic biology. The videos engage scholarly, student, and public audiences in the stakes of harnessing the energies of living beings or systems for “green” economic growth.
The Social and Economic Geographies of Conservation Finance
While my past work focused on the rise of economic logics in biodiversity conservation, my more recently concluded SSHRC-funded research project (2013-2016) traced real flows of accumulation-seeking biodiversity conservation finance: was all the enterprising talk leading to “green capital” walk? The first part of this research found that the overall return-oriented capital flowing toward biodiversity conservation as an embryonic “asset class” is small, geographically constrained (i.e. moving mostly within the North, not North to South), and seeks little to no profit (e.g. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 2016). The second part of this research examined three financial mechanisms in depth, from the firm headquarters all the way down to their conservation investments in Kenya.
This work investigating for profit conservation financial mechanisms continues. Given the research results so far, I find myself with somewhat of a cliffhanger project: will these investments turn around and actually deliver capital back to investors? If so, which projects? And if not, why not? There is also much to be learned about capitalism and socioecological crises in general by studying these nascent asset-making attempts in detail, at multiple sites, and over time. For this work I am supported by a five year SSHRC Insight Grant (2018-2023) and work with a team of stellar collaborators. See the research project website for more details. Related to this work I have published on the Neoliberal Natures literature, including by co-editing a forum that reflects on a field (see Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 2018).
Why biodiversity loss?
The second thread of my current research tackles the question of why the decimation of nonhuman continues apace, despite growing scientific, political, and legal attention paid to biodiversity loss. Rosemary Collard and I are beginning a multi-year, and multi-site research project called Cheap Natures of Canada. Our working hypothesis is that biodiversity loss stems from repeated placements of nonhumans in devalued positions or arrangements (hence, cheap – a term of Jason Moore’s). To test this hypothesis we are building empirically based, political economic theorizations of biodiversity loss, focusing first on woodland caribou. Following these species through interdependent economic, legal, and ecological changes over time, we will investigate how natures are kept cheap and what this tells us about the problem of biodiversity loss. We have seed funding (a UBC Hampton Grant) that will enable interview and archival research into why woodland caribou, a species with the highest legal protections available in Canada, will almost certainly face extinction in our lifetime.
Through this project, but also more broadly, my research explores the relationship between capitalism and ecological – especially nonhuman – life. With Rosemary (again!), we are working at theorizing environmental crises, namely biodiversity loss and extinction, by drawing from and extending feminist and postcolonial scholars of capitalism. Towards this end we have published a papers at Capitalism, Nature, Socialism and Gender, Place and Culture, as well as a response in Dialogues in Human Geography.