My central academic goal is to wrestle with the theoretical and historical-geographical complexities of environmental politics as it shapes and is shaped by the entanglement of state, economy, science, and culture. My research draws from and contributes to diverse methodological approaches and literatures including political ecology, economic geography, feminist science studies, and increasingly, green finance. Below I lay out four thematic areas of research to which I actively contribute.
Geographies of international environmental finance and ‘lively commodities’: My primary research area aims to open windows on how environmental governance and ecological science are entangled with ‘the economic’. This research area drives my forthcoming book Enterprising Nature, where I explore the rise of economic and market-based approaches to global biodiversity conservation. Through multi-site analysis, from New York to Nairobi, I explore the drive to produce a nature that can prove its value in economic terms, a nature that can compete in the marketplace and the cost-benefit accounting of modern governance. An enterprising nature. In addition to my forthcoming book, other work in this research area has already been published in leading geography journals like Geoforum (Dempsey 2013) and Progress in Human Geography (Dempsey and Robertson 2012), as well as in interdisciplinary journal Studies in Political Economy (M’Gonigle and Dempsey 2003).
In my current SSHRC-funded project (2013-2016) “Tracing International Biodiversity Capital”, I aim to understand the size and scope of international flows in “for profit” biodiversity conservation. Whereas Enterprising Nature focuses on the production of truths and calculative techniques that frame nature as best governed through economic logics, this research traces real flows of accumulation-seeking biodiversity conservation finance to understand their social and economic geographies. This research is linked to a line of inquiry exploring the scientific, legal and political dynamics of how nonhuman living beings become and circulate as commodities, what my co-author and I (Collard and Dempsey 2013) term “lively commodities” in the journal Environment and Planning A. This interest in the political, economic and ethical complexities of lively commodities also informs an innovative project recently funded by SSHRC ($44,210, 2014-2015), the “Bioeconomies Media Project”. This project will produce a website and three short animated videos on ecosystem service, wildlife, and synthetic biology bioeconomies.
Colonialism and the cultural politics of nature: In this area, 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 as well as living in the settler colony of British Columbia. Critical environmental scholarship must be deeply historical; we cannot consider “what is to be done” without considering the question of responsibility in how society came to be this way. Recent publications in this area include a recent co-authored publication in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers that brings theorizations and practices of decolonization into conversation with the future of biodiversity conservation, including the “for-profit” form. My research also examines how environmental degradation and conservation are marked by the systemic operation of racialized, gendered, and classed hierarchies that require constant attention. Drawing from post colonial and feminist theorizing, I have co-published on the ‘nature and culture’ dichotomy (Sundberg and Dempsey 2009), on political ecology (Sundberg and Dempsey 2013) and on issues of race, property and colonialism in Canada, particularly as it relates to changing approaches to land ownership on Native Reserves (Dempsey et al 2011).
Politics of knowledge and science in environmental disputes and policies: At the intersection of science studies and political ecology, my work aims to open windows on questions of power, knowledge and environmental issues. All contemporary environmental issues or conflicts involve competing knowledge claims at multiple scales, and not all actors are equally powerful. My research contributions in this area, especially a paper published in Geoforum (Dempsey 2011) engage the insights of science studies guru Bruno Latour, who claims that one of the reasons environmentalism fails is because it continues to use scientific fact, what he calls ‘Naturpolitik’ to ground their political claims. Drawing from empirical research into forest conflicts (and their resolution) in British Columbia, I put forward a nuanced counter-argument to Latour by showing the enormous barriers to socioecological transformation on the coast of BC that go far beyond a ‘Naturpolitik’. This area intersects with all themes above, as the creation of new ‘facts of life’ is linked to flows of capital, state decisions, and is rooted in often deeply colonial epistemologies.
Critical environmental governmentalities of Canada: My research also engages with on-going contestations over ecosystems and biodiversity in Canada. A co-authored paper (Dearden and Dempsey 2004) examining changes in the Canadian National Parks policy is one of the most downloaded papers from the Canadian Geographer, and I have contributed to three editions of Parks and Protected Areas in Canada focusing on the rise of stewardship approaches. In a publication in Environment and Planning A (Dempsey 2010), I chart the emergence of new forms of environmental governance in BC, and develop a novel account of regional transformation by focusing on past and present relationships with grizzly bears. More recently I completed an updated book chapter on the topic of non-state protected areas in Canada (forthcoming in Parks and Protected Areas in Canada, Third Edition), and a new graduate student will focus on extending this research, which is grossly neglected even in the form of basic empirics, especially on financing and governance. Future research along these lines this will bring together my interests in finance and economics (above) and my interests in environmental governance in Canada.