Reimagining biodiversity narratives and pandemics

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Gretchen Henderson

Five days before any coronavirus cases were diagnosed in Italy, I disembarked a plane in Milan, greeted by officials in hazmat suits who swiped passengers’ foreheads with a wand.

If our flight had been a fairy tale, religious parable, or science fiction, the action might have symbolized a protective blessing to ward off a curse. Unknown to me, my temperature was being checked. Though I had been following the outbreaks in China and Iran, Italy seemed far from the trouble.

My destination was the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center at Lake Como, where I was meeting colleagues to collaborate on a research agenda for biodiversity. “Biodiversity” represents life on Earth in all its forms and interactions. Our group was gathering in a crisis: why long evidence of climate change had not shifted human behavior to save species and cool our baking planet.

Coming from the arts and humanities, I was an outlier at our table of scientists and social scientists, including the Chief Scientist of the World Wildlife Fund, the Chair of the Red List of Threatened Species, and other established and emerging professionals from places diverse as Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, and Colombia. Like a fly buzzing on the wall, I was there to help question the role of narratives in shaping understandings of biodiversity, a reminder that the way we tell stories matters.

Now, a month after that trip, the university where I teach in Washington, DC, has shuttered and sent home students as we transition to a Virtual Learning Environment. My objective revising syllabi has been to keep everyone at the table, if they have limited technology, connecting from time zones far as South Korea, or other pressures. The real lessons will come not from staying with our course material but from staying together to integrate this moment into our unfolding, collective story.

How we tell stories around Covid-19 matters, because stories start to shape our actions and reactions.

It may seem trite to mention stories in a pandemic. But since I teach stories and will continue to do so virtually in coming weeks, it’s hard not to see patterns. A pandemic tends to follow the “outbreak narrative,” as Priscilla Wald defines in Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (2008). The “outbreak narrative” chronicles “a formulaic plot” that identifies an emerging infection, spreading through global networks, to the “epidemiological work that ends with its containment.”

As this pandemic grows, different places are sending dispatches from the future in real time. “Writing this from Italy, I am also writing to you from your own future,” wrote Ida Garibaldi in The Washington Post on March 17: “From our state of emergency.”

Pandemics cut across all lines. Comparisons have been made to Ebola and SARS, but we have not experienced a global pandemic in our lifetimes. Few among us know centenarians who may have survived the influenza epidemic, too young to remember its ravages. My family’s only recollection was from my great-grandfather, a pastor who spent seven days a week, upon weeks, officiating funerals because so many people died. Told in hindsight, history seems linear. Yet over a century ago, at early moments of the influenza epidemic, entangled histories still had multiple possible futures.

“This is a new chapter: a new beginning,” I wrote to students via email when our virtual transition was announced, asking them to notice narratives unfolding in our midst. “How do we deal with new circumstances in new ways? How do we not fall back on old and worn narrative strategies?” Essentially, how can we co-imagine this story while it is being told?

In Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (2016), Ursula Heise asks, “What affirmative visions of the future can the environmentalist movement offer, visions that are neither returns to an imagined pastoral past nor nightmares of future devastation meant to serve as ‘cautionary tales’?”

Pandemic narratives mark history: from Homer’s classical Iliad, to Boccaccio’s medieval Decameron, to Albert Camus’ twentieth-century The Plague, to recent “Indigenous Futurisms” (coined by Grace Dillon) that refer to speculative fictions by Indigenous writers and artists who imagine futures beyond colonialism’s past pandemics and ongoing cultural obliterations.

Since all life on this planet is entangled, causes of pandemics are multifold – more than the virus alone. They arise from other contributing causes, including biodiversity loss. Scientific projections anticipated a pandemic like Covid-19, presciently filmed as the fictional Contagion (2011). Like the climate crisis, this pandemic wasn’t entirely unexpected.

Quarantine provides opportunity for reflection on daily behaviors that we are giving up or adapting. What is essential; what falls away? World War II brought rationing and Victory Gardens. Mandated shifts from Covid-19 are cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. If we can make substantive changes during wartime or a pandemic, can we do the same for the climate crisis? Figuring out ways to come together in our current crisis, we may discover new ways to reimagine our entangled futures.

Related reading: Biodiversity Revisited

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The surprising new way to approach human-wildlife conflict: a new report

The way to solve human-wildlife conflict (HWC) may not be as straightforward as people think. Conflicts are fundamentally social and political issues between people and groups of people, but the language of conflict is often associated with negative interactions between wild animals and people, hence the rise of the common term ‘human-wildlife conflict’. 

As the human population grows and environmental issues such as climate change and habitat degradation escalate, negative interactions between wildlife and people are predicted to increase in both frequency and intensity. This in turn leads to conflicts between groups of people with different interests, values and power. Most often, the people directly affected by the depredations of wild animals have very little of the latter. Such conflicts are widespread, and in some cases seriously threaten the worldwide goals of biodiversity preservation and sustainable development. 

Who makes the decisions where there are negative interactions between wild animals and people? Who writes the rules, and who implements them? Who mediates and what is ‘good’ governance in these circumstances? 

There is a widespread acceptance in some parts of the conservation community that profound changes are required in the way  ‘human-wildlife conflict’ is understood, addressed, and managed. However, there are few visible expressions of this awareness being translated in a practical context. Duan Biggs of Griffith University in Australia is convinced that there are some simple tools that can make a significant difference – especially standards and best practice guidelines –  and the Luc Hoffmann Institute has been incubating his ideas so that they take shape and have impact. As part of this work the institute has been helping Duan and others unpack and analyse what is already going. The new report on ‘The state of knowledge and practice on human-wildlife conflicts’ arises from this analysis. Compiled by leading specialists in the field of HWC, it points the way to developing a standard to guide and improve approaches to HWC globally. 

The report addresses fundamental governance questions and uses existing research on relevant standards from natural resources management and wider conservation practice to advise on the factors to consider and the potential design for a new standard.

Read more about the Navigating Conflict over Iconic Wildlife initiative here. If you would like to contribute to the further development of a new global standard for human-wildlife conflict, please contact Jon Hutton, Director, Luc Hoffmann Institute at


Untapped opportunities for innovative entrepreneurs in the non-profit sector

There is a massive opportunity to disrupt the market for nature conservation.

I wrote about this a while back in a piece called “Wanted: disruptive entrepreneurs for conservation”. 

Recently, three separate events occurred in quick succession that highlighted this largely untapped potential:

  1. A family member emailed me to enquire about the best mechanism for him to voluntarily offset his family’s carbon emissions, frustrated by a lack of solution for a retail consumer like himself;
  2. A friend who works in a small tech start-up asked me how his company, which is finally starting to generate a small profit, could donate some of that directly to local “on-the-ground environmental or ecosystems projects” to benefit wildlife;
  3. After reading the Luc Hoffmann Institute analysis on ‘Diversifying local livelihoods while sustaining wildlife’, an African entrepreneur with a significant track record in forestry and energy management presented a business project to link, via a mobile platform, small carbon emitters with the local owners of well managed land to offset these directly.

What do these three events have in common? They point to a global and potentially massive market for the conservation of nature: directly linking those willing to pay for nature with the local communities that choose to conserve it, bypassing traditional intermediaries.

This market is growing for the farsighted and courageous innovators out there.

Up to now, there have been a number of efforts at making nature conservation competitive with other forms of economic activity. These include, among others, efforts at “going beyond GDP”, economic internalisation of externalities, or business assessment of triple bottom lines.

Yet there are real problems with these approaches. For one, they are complicated. They are also highly theoretical, unless there is a coercive rule, such as a regulation or law, to enforce their application. For another, they are value-laden. How much are animals such as tigers and lions worth? To whom? Finally, there is deep moral hazard to this approach. After all, if nature is given a price, it is easy to imagine that it could ultimately be bought with impunity by the richest 1%, not necessarily to the advantage of the global commons and local communities.

In light of the three recent events I mentioned above, among others, another far simpler approach became more evident: people are inherently willing to pay to keep (or even regenerate) nature, wildlife and ecosystems for no financial return at all. In other words, people want to conserve nature for its own sake, and are willing to pay for this. Not to buy it. Not to own it. Not to sell it. Not to profit from it. Only to do good. In this case, to ensure nature lives on for future generations while supporting local communities.

One indicator of this greater willingness is how much people (and taxpayers) give to conservation NGOs. A quick, non-rigorous survey of the main environmental NGOs’ annual reports points to a massive market, with more than USD 5 billion in donations annually. Donations include for example those from individuals, large grants by foundations, legacy giving, or public and private sector giving. A broader survey of all the giving, corporate social responsibility, government spending and the like which expect no direct financial return, would add significantly to this number.

This market for nature conservation also has significant growth potential. Research shows that the millennial generation is more likely to value impact than the previous baby-boomer generation. More millennials are willing to give to charity than their parents. Millennials are also set to cumulatively inherit a USD 30 to 68 trillion fortune (depending on the estimates) in the coming years in what is deemed the greatest wealth transfer in history. Yet the new generation also seeks transparency and direct, hands-on experience.

Tapping into this new kind of demand is an important opportunity for innovative entrepreneurs. Who can think of new business models that connect those willing to pay to conserve ecosystems and wildlife for no financial return, directly with those local communities who will make the economic choices that make most sense to them? The commodity being consumed is, simply, feeling good about doing good. Technology allows this. Social networks can amplify it.

We can save the natural world if we value it. What is really needed are new approaches and models to package the value of doing good in a convenient way for the new generation to buy into.

At the Luc Hoffmann Institute, we are looking to spur innovative business models for life on Earth. If you are working on this and want to link up ideas and networks, we’d like to be in touch. Email me at

news publication

Seeds of Change – inspiring a new research agenda for life on Earth

What has gone wrong with nature conservation and how do we bring about transformative change to create a more sustainable future? Which types of knowledge, ethics, principles and actions are needed to reverse the decline of biodiversity? And given the urgency to act, how can we harness them to sustain a just and diverse future for life on Earth?

These are the questions underlying Seeds of Change – provocations for a new research agenda, a compilation of expert reviews and essays generated by the Biodiversity Revisited initiative, led by the Luc Hoffmann Institute in collaboration with WWF, Future Earth, ETH Zürich Department of Environmental Systems Science, University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, and the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research at University College London. The essays offer diverse, innovative insights and perspectives on biodiversity conservation from around the world from the political, legal, economic and ecological to the moral, social, aesthetic and cultural.

Covering six themes: concepts, narratives, science, governance, systems and futures, the 30 essays and six reviews were written ahead of a Biodiversity Revisited symposium held in Vienna in September 2019 which brought together 74 researchers and practitioners from 23 countries.

Biodiversity Revisited is the first extensive review of the biodiversity concept since the term was coined in the 1980s, looking at why it has not been compelling enough to stop the degradation of the diversity of life on Earth. Seeds of Change underpins the debate about how different types of research practices, knowledge and processes could play a more effective role in setting the foundations and directions for a biodiverse world by 2030.

The initiative aims to raise new awareness about biodiversity and how to conserve it, and will culminate in a five-year research and action agenda.

Download Seeds of Change

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New Luc Hoffmann Institute analysis surveys over 130 incentives for community-based conservation

Fresh off the press is the Luc Hoffmann Institute’s latest analysis publication, ‘Diversifying local livelihoods while sustaining wildlife

The publication provides a landscape snapshot of different models for community-based conservation, mainly in Southern and East Africa, and is accompanied by an inventory of over 130 community conservation initiatives. It is part of a forward-looking initiative with WWF-Norway focussed on identifying and piloting new revenue streams for wildlife conservation beyond tourism and hunting, which have long served as the primary source of revenue for wildlife conservation.

The institute considers  this publication as a starting point. It hopes to help spur new models to provide communities a genuinely sustainable living from their natural environment, all while ensuring the long-term conservation of wildlife and natural systems.

If you would like to take part in the institute’s efforts to find innovative business models for life on Earth, please contact Adrian Dellecker at

past projects

Development corridors partnership

Project end date: November 2018

Who we are working with

Related SDGS

About the project

The Development Corridors Partnership, led by the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) is helping countries in East Africa to plan for a sustainable future.

The project will use a capacity-building approach to analyse proposed development corridors in Kenya and Tanzania and consider how they can be designed to deliver sustainable, inclusive and resilient economic growth.

Initial corridors are the Lamu Port and Lamu – Southern Sudan – Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET Kenya) and the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT). Further corridors are likely to be considered by the project, including the corridor being created by building the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, and two development corridors in Uganda.

The project has three main objectives:

  • Capacity building including training for researchers and institutions in East Africa, UK and China to build a group of experienced and knowledgeable practitioners that will be able to support more sustainable land use and investment planning in East Africa and beyond.
  • Cross-disciplinary research to enhance the relevance and quality of research on development corridors. The project will link the research done in eastern Africa to the work of Chinese research institutions who advise on Chinese development spending in Africa. By increasing knowledge of the issues and opportunities associated with development corridors in Africa, investment activities can be designed to be more socially and environmentally sustainable.
  • New and existing research will be shared with a range of decision makers involved in development corridor planning including government, private sector actors, Chinese investors and lending agencies. This will ensure those involved in planning and implementing corridor visions can make evidence-based and informed decisions.  

Working with WCMC, the Luc Hoffmann Institute will contribute expertise on convening, research design and mapping policy pathways, aiming to accelerate the outcomes and influence of the research. The overall goal is to maximise the project’s potential impact on policy making for sustainable socio-economic development in East Africa and capitalise on this critical moment for the future of conservation and society in the region. 

Related resources

A measure to make biodiversity relevant

An environmental visionary, The Luc Hoffmann Institute’s patron and WWF’s father

And the cities rise up? – Reflections from Habitat III

project timeline What we are working on now

Innovative business models for life on earth

With more and more companies striving for impact, and non-profit organisations seeking more sustainable revenue models, the lines between the business and non-profit sector are blurring. What new sustainable business models will emerge for non-profits and impact-driven enterprises to deliver lasting and effective impact?


Drawing from new ideas and new networks that grew out of a November 2018 convening, the Luc Hoffmann Institute has begun incubating a number of initiatives that make use of innovative business models to deliver environmental gains. The institute is always scouting for bright minds and ideas, and helps connect new approaches together. With its incubation model, the institute works with innovators in both non-profits and impact-driven enterprises to transform good ideas into concrete solutions for nature and people.

Who we are working with

Related SDGs

Explore the impacts


© Tobias Mrzyk / Unsplash
November 2018

The Luc Hoffmann Institute publishes a thought piece by Judith Sanderse, PhD candidate

New horizons for non-profit business models

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November 2018

The Luc Hoffmann Institute facilitates a convening on innovative business models for non-profits and social enterprise.


September 2019

The Luc Hoffmann Institute and WWF-Norway engage with and challenge innovators directly at the Business of Conservation Conference in Africa. Ideas and leads are gathered to include in an upcoming analysis publication.


A new generation of sustainability-minded entrepreneurs emerges and fundamentally transforms the way society values and conserves nature.

Timeline ends here

Related resources

Diversifying local livelihoods while sustaining wildlife
– A January 2020 Luc Hoffmann Institute analysis publication of over 130 incentives for community-based conservation.

New horizons for non-profit business models
– thought piece by Judith Sanders, PhD candidate

Wanted: disruptive entrepreneurs for conservation
– thought piece by Adrian Dellecker, Head of Strategy and Development (ad-interim), Luc Hoffmann Institute

Looking beyond hunting and tourism for community benefits
– A thought piece by Melissa de Kock; WWF-Norway, Senior Advisor: Conservation, Climate and Communities

From crisis to solutions for communities and African conservation (commentary)
– A May 2020 commentary by Dickson Kaelo, Daniel Sopia, Damian Bell, Richard Diggle and Fred Nelson on the Mongabay website

project timeline

The search for a multidimensional biodiversity index

What could revolutionize the way biodiversity data is collected, synthesized, understood and acted on, the way that ‘2 degrees Celsius’ galvanised action on Climate Change?


In partnership with the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), the Luc Hoffmann Institute is incubating the idea of transforming how biodiversity is integrated into decision-making globally through a multidimensional biodiversity index (MBI). Learning from the successes and failures of economic and poverty indices, the institute is bringing diverse voices together to lay the foundations for the concept and raise awareness of its potential.

Who we are working with

Explore the impacts


© WWF US Keith-Arnold

The world faces global disasters.

© Meridith Kohut WWF-US

For the first time, the notion of a multidimensional biodiversity index (MBI) emerges as an opportunity to better inform decision-making in the environmental sector.


Play video →

Luc Hoffmann Institute, UNEP-WCMC, and WWF convene diverse actors around the search for an MBI. Feedback following the convening indicates that the “single index” approach is feasible.

June 2019

“Some things are very difficult to count, but if we create an infrastructure for measuring biodiversity, then it begins to count for society and people start to see the impact.”

Pali Lehohla, former Statistician General of South Africa and Founder of the Pan-African Institute for Evidence at the convening on ‘Exploring a multidimensional biodiversity index’.

“This is going to be important in designing policy interventions that can affect the trend [in species depletion] and hopefully turn it back.”

Adriana Conconi, Executive Director, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative at the convening on ‘Exploring a multidimensional biodiversity index’.


The United Nations Environment Programme Statistical Division helps integrating the index in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) reporting and considers becoming the index’s official custodian agency.


© Jim Woodson

Several governments volunteer to conduct pilot projects in their countries (Switzerland, South Africa, Vietnam, Mexico, Costa Rica); Several countries and foundations also indicate an interest in funding the development of an index.

February 2020

The Swiss Federal Department of Environment supports the development of the index for a three year project, and volunteers to have the concept tried in Switzerland.

Discussions begin with local actors, in Switzerland, Costa Rica, Viet Nam and Mexico on how to deliver pilot projects in countries to test the MBI.

August 2021

Research published in Nature Sustainability presents a co-produced Multidimensional Biodiversity Index to connect biodiversity science to the political agenda, accounting for the diversity of values underpinning nature–human relationships.

Towards a policy-smart and multidimensional biodiversity measure


Biodiversity health, and business and societal responses to it, can be measured and easily communicated, and resources are better allocated to regenerate biodiversity while ensuring human wellbeing.

Timeline ends here

Related resources

Towards a policy-smart and multidimensional biodiversity measure
An August 2021 research paper published in Nature Sustainability, which presents a new MBI to connect biodiversity science to the political agenda.

Towards a multidimensional biodiversity index
A July 2019 video on the Multidimensional Biodiversity Index initiative. 

A measure to make biodiversity relevant 
A June 2019 thought piece by Adrian Dellecker, Head of Strategy and Development (ad-interim), Luc Hoffmann Institute.

Disseminating the power of an index that would transform conservation efforts 
A March 2019 thought piece by Carolina Campos, Luc Hoffmann Institute and UNEP-WCMC research associate; pursuing an MSc in Environmental Economics at the London School of Economics.

One for all or all for one? 
A November 2018 thought piece by Carolina Soto-Navarro, Postdoctoral scientist, Luc Hoffmann Institute and UNEP-WCMC Science Programme.


Check out the Luc Hoffmann Institute’s new flagship video

The environmental challenges we face today can seem daunting and intractable. How to protect the biosphere, balance the needs of humans and the natural world, and shape a sustainable future? These are complex, multi-faceted questions and we need to find better ways to answer them.


The science, policy and practice interface