Jessica Dempsey

Associate Professor

Relevant Thesis-Based Degree Programs

Affiliations to Research Centres, Institutes & Clusters


Great Supervisor Week Mentions

Each year graduate students are encouraged to give kudos to their supervisors through social media and our website as part of #GreatSupervisorWeek. Below are students who mentioned this supervisor since the initiative was started in 2017.


Jess practices the kind of academic feedback she teaches: using critique to make others' work better rather than tearing it apart or trying to mold it into a different project.  Her feedback is incredibly helpful for helping me identify exactly where I need to clarify my thinking without pushing me into a particular direction.  She also has a wonderful way of cultivating community among her students.  Even though (as human geographers) none of us work in a lab together, Jess still convenes regular "lab meetings" where everyone checks in with each other and discusses questions/difficulties/progress/goals over food and drinks in addition to checking in with us all individually.  I feel really fortunate to work with Jess as my supervisor.

Mollie Holmberg (2018)


Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Making the environmental state in Chile: knowledge, markets, and legal frameworks for biodiversity conservation (2022)

In response to pressures from intergovernmental institutions, NGOs, and environmental movements, Chile is crafting new legal and policy frameworks to increase state management and financing of biodiversity conservation. In 2014, the executive branch sent to congress a bill to create a Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service (BPAS). The BPAS, which remains in the legislature, would be a game-changer in a country that has for decades prioritized a neoliberal economic model based on the export of raw nature. Moreover, since the state ratified ILO Convention 169 in 2008 and UNDRIP in 2009, the new environmental institutions must respect the rights and views of Indigenous people – a considerable challenge given Chile’s long legacy of Indigenous land dispossession, forced displacement, and genocide. This dissertation analyzes “the making of the environmental state”: a state with sufficient institutional capacity to protect biodiversity. The questions guiding this research are: What is the character of the environmental state in Chile? How does the environmental state come into being? What is its approach to generating financial resources? And how does it relate to Indigenous people? Based on interviews with state and intergovernmental officers, Indigenous representatives, and private environmental experts, along with a review of governmental documents, I scrutinize the creation of the BPAS bill and its main economic instruments. I trace the legislative history of the BPAS bill, reviewing parliamentary debates around articles which render biodiversity economic. I then focus on one of the bill’s centerpieces, a biodiversity offsets market, analyzing the actors who participated in its crafting, the discourses justifying its implementation, and the market devices in its design. Finally, I shift gears to examine the state's relationship with Indigenous people during a consultation on the BPAS. This research suggests that the state's intimate relationship with global circuits of capital accumulation and policymaking severely restricts its capacity to implement environmental reforms. Furthermore, the environmental state in Chile is invested in internal and settler colonial logics that marginalize Indigenous practices and knowledges.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

The political life of mangroves (2023)

“Limb for limb, the mangrove is perhaps the most important tree species on Earth,” declared Conservation International in a recent update. Detailing the abilities of these trees to palliate the threats of a warming and degraded planet, this piece appealed to a now-dominant logic of conservation practice: that protecting nature might not only be a problem to solve, but a solution itself. The ascent of the mangrove forest as a “nature-based solution” marks a shift towards climate and conservation policy that promises to remedy numerous social, ecological, and economic crises at once. But what kind of approach to managing socio-ecological problems does this solution reproduce? In this thesis, I aim to historicize this solution by following the political life of mangroves: how the fate of the mangrove forest became entangled with the ideology of the Washington Consensus, first as its victim, and now as its savior. Through historical research, interviews, and document analysis, I follow the mangrove through its most significant period of decline, its subsequent emergence as an object of international conservation concern, and its current articulation with finance capital as a leading market-based environmental solution. In Chapter 1, I trace how mangrove loss becomes explained as an issue of improper values, a problem that requires solving via the financial revaluation of the mangrove ecosystem, which obfuscates broader political economic drivers of mangrove degradation. In Chapter 2, I show how a lack of state capacity and structural limits on access to capital frame the problem of the financing gap for nature, a gap that subsequently justifies the need for private financial investment in mangroves. I argue that such conservation finance projects should not be understood simply as technical fixes to generate more funds, but as political economic projects with specific aims beyond mangrove conservation. Further, I show how “the mangrove”, as a dominant policy solution, promises that socioecological wellbeing can take place within the current structure of the global economy, while creating solutions that selectively narrate which conditions of socioecological inequality and vulnerability are in need of repair.

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Conservation constrained: protecting British Columbia's endangered caribou in a political-economy of extraction (2022)

Intensifying resource extraction poses an existential threat to the world’s biodiversity. This threat is exemplified in the case of British Columbia’s (BC) endangered woodland caribou herds (Rangifer tarandus), which are facing extirpation due to extraction-driven habitat destruction, primarily from oil & gas development and forest harvest. Notably, the decline of BC’s caribou is occurring despite the fact that they are both federally protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), and subject to a number of intensive conservation initiatives. In this thesis, I explore how caribou declines are occurring despite existing legal protections by examining how the province’s apparent economic reliance on resource extraction shapes available conservation solutions. To do so, I conduct a two part inquiry using a combination of Critical GIS and policy and textual analysis. First, I quantify the extent to which the province subsidizes oil & gas activities in federally designated critical caribou habitat. Then, I examine the province's dominant conservation solution to caribou endangerment, wolf culling, and unpack its relationship to BC’s extractive regime. Ultimately I find that from 2019-2021, subsidized oil & gas activities were occurring in critical caribou habitat. Additionally, drawing from existing literature on socio-ecological fixes, I demonstrate that because the provincial wolf cull does not challenge the root cause of defaunation, yet fulfills the state’s mandate for conservation action, it ultimately works to sustain the extractive status quo. Overall, this work demonstrates that the apparent economic imperative of resource extraction in British Columbia both undercuts the potential for comprehensive solutions to caribou declines, such as habitat protection, and constrains the realm of possible interventions to those that do not inhibit further extraction. In doing so this research contributes to questions of how global defaunation continues to accelerate despite an increase in legal mechanisms designed to protect vulnerable species and ecosystems.

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Crisis ecology at the Vancouver Aquarium: putting octopuses to work for conservation (2019)

In this time of accelerating ecological crises, captive care has emerged as a triage site where nonprofit conservation organizations attempt to resuscitate species and ecosystems rapidly disappearing from the planet. Zoos and aquariums play a central and controversial role in this care. The Vancouver Aquarium, leveraging environmental crisis narratives to justify and garner support for its work, considers conserving aquatic life its central mission. My research focuses on the Giant Pacific octopus exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium, investigating how people at the Aquarium use this exhibit to implement conservation work by reconfiguring octopuses’ socioecological relationships. Using a mix of semi-structured interviews, document analysis, and multispecies ethnography, I examine how wild octopuses come to the Aquarium and how their socioecological relationships transform in this space. I then explore how staff hope to leverage the octopus exhibit for conservation, science, education, and entertainment. Through this work, I find that narratives about environmental crisis produce modes of caring for octopuses and their ecosystems which enclose octopuses within new forms of human control. This control only unravels where human care fails or ends. However, both the success and undoing of human care for octopuses produce violence and give life: reconfiguring octopuses’ ecological relationships in captivity restricts their movement and degrades their health even as failed care can kill, and liberating octopuses exposes them to environmental ills that captivity protects them from. This work therefore illustrates how the Aquarium’s conservation mandate operates in tension with an environmental crisis it simultaneously erodes and relies upon.

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