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Thought piece: blinded by our heroic fantasies?

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece brought to you by Josie Chambers, a postdoc at Cambridge University and the Luc Hoffmann Institute

“When you stand on the edge of an abyss, progress means taking a step backwards.” (translated from German)

 Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Austrian artist, architect and environmental activist

There is a growing sense that we are moving closer to the edge: global biodiversity decline, climate change, social inequalities, water shortages, megafires, to name a few. Yet we feel uncertain about how to collectively take action. This shared concern drew together 70 people from diverse professions and career stages at the Biodiversity Revisited Symposium in Vienna September 11-13 2019.

After reflecting on spirited dialogue over dozens of insightful provocations, it seems the most critical issue driving biodiversity loss has nothing to do with biodiversity. Rather, I think it is that all too often we see ourselves as the hero, convinced that we know what the problem (and thus solution) is – or if we don’t, that we can quickly discover it.

Our sense of certainty in the truth of our stories and goodness of our actions constrains our imagination and fundamentally limits our desire to think and act in more collaborative and intersectional ways. This problem applies to all of us – conservationists, researchers, citizens, CEOs, policy-makers alike – but most especially, those whose power and privilege depends on their stories being accepted as truth. Until we learn how to collectively explore our heroic stories – their origins, consequences, contradictions and connections – our struggles for justice will remain divided.

What are these heroic stories?

These heroic stories are stubbornly familiar. The national parks that save nature from people. The conversion of poor farmers into “nature’s guardians” through simple incentives and education. The allocation of rights to local communities to allow them to protect nature. The large corporations who fund such projects to justify negative impacts elsewhere and further capital accumulation. The researchers who generate scientific truths to inform policy. The activists who shout these truths from their apparent moral high ground.

These efforts indeed produce incremental changes, but the central problem is that these stories ring hollow for the majority. In their fervour to convince, these stories express partial truths that overlook how they compromise many people’s values – people who are not readily convinced by the argument: “I know the truth, and it says you are wrong!”

Many people simply do not care about the loss of particular species or habitats compared to fulfilling other aspirations, and some have even experienced direct trauma from conservation efforts. Stories that claim to hold truth and locate blame in ways that threaten, as opposed to respect, people’s identities and experiences risk side-lining other important struggles for justice. They can keep us fragmented and incapable of systemic change.

What could a truly transformative agenda and process for biodiversity conservation look like?

I think it requires that we step outside of these established heroic stories that mostly pursue predefined aims and check if they are fulfilled (e.g. protected areas reducing deforestation, business models increasing profit). We must instead find ways to extend beyond and cut across them. For example, we could examine the impacts of global financial flows and legal frameworks on social-ecological justice. Or we could identify societal values that foster both mental and ecological health. We must explore how knowledge can be produced in conversation with movements for justice, instead of in historically isolated and extractive ways – driven by the story that knowledge compels people to act according to its doctrine.

To openly acknowledge our own heroic stories does not mean to denigrate them nor uncritically acquiesce to others. An important role remains for diverse efforts, such as the traditional conservation biologist who discovers new species and reasons to protect them. Or the activist, who joins together with others to call for respecting certain values, which has historically sparked considerable improvements in human rights.

However, efforts to act using existing stories need not distract us from our important collective task of taking responsibility for what values we exclude and why. By accepting that our stories are always partial truth, we can begin to collectively interrogate the hopes, fears and interests that underpin why so often we accept them as the whole truth.

Such an agenda necessitates genuinely listening and connecting to each other. It recognises that people “rolling out” solutions for the majority based on singular notions of truth will play out as tug-of-war battles that push us closer to the abyss. Instead, it acknowledges the desperate need to better understand how to design legitimate and dynamic processes that allow diverse voices to be heard and connect on equal ground to build collective compromise, purpose and hope for change. This would democratise the responsibility for creating new stories that join together diverse struggles for justice.

Josie Chambers is a postdoc at Cambridge University and the Luc Hoffmann Institute

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

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Thought piece: is what we’re doing working?

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Victoria Pilbeam, a Senior Consultant at Clear Horizon Consulting

Most conservationists are driven by impact. They want to see the places, communities and wildlife that they dedicate their lives to thriving. But how often do we as conservationists explain how we think that change will happen, or take the time to test the core assumptions underpinning these theories?

As an evaluator, the work I do is largely predicated on the belief that people and organisations can only make a difference if they can clearly describe how their work contributes to a bigger picture. Understanding and articulating how conservation is supposed to work is key to doing conservation that protects our environment. One of the key tools that we can use to help us with this ambitious task is developing a theory of change.

Theory of change is a powerful thinking tool that makes explicit how we think interventions will deliver outcomes and contribute to a wider impact. The dominant narrative that Biodiversity Revisited is seeking to address is built on a very clear theory of change. In a nutshell, the core intervention under this model of conservation is researching biodiversity, with its intended outcome being to influence decision-makers to conserve biodiversity, and its intended wider impact to foster a more biodiverse world.

We have considerable evidence that the core assumption underlying this theory of change has not held true. Despite knowing more about biophysical systems than ever before, significant action has not followed, and our natural world is in crisis.

It’s time to revisit our theory of change.

So how might we develop a stronger theory of change to inform a more effective conservation agenda? A theory of change works best when it’s developed collectively, with a diversity of perspectives and experiences in the room. I hope that Biodiversity Revisited will provide an opportunity to discuss how new conservation movements will work towards a better future. But to get the ball rolling, I’ll share some initial thoughts.

Firstly, let’s consider a broader set of actors than just scientists, practitioners and policymakers. The failure of our current model indicates that biophysical research alone is unlikely to catalyse the change we need. This means that we need to develop new narratives that include a wider range of stakeholders. We can learn a lot from the integrated approaches to biodiversity that many successful Indigenous cultures have practiced for thousands of years. We might also want to learn from collective impact approaches that bring together different sectors and communities to address seemingly intractable problems.

Secondly, we have to be explicit about the values that underpin our theories of change and be prepared to test and revise our assumptions. The current dominant model of conservation assumes that science should have a stronger say in decision-making than other forms of knowledge. This stance reflects certain values about the centrality of science in our society. But in a world where resources are scarce, if we want a conservation agenda that creates room for more diverse stakeholders, science cannot occupy the same level of focus. This is also a normative decision. As an extension of this, if we assume that a people’s movement for biodiversity will save the planet, then we must be prepared to test this assumption. You could argue that despite compelling wide-scale protests for climate action, global climate policy is still failing to address the climate crisis.

Finally, in developing our new theories of change, we have to be prepared to ask the hard questions about how we practice conservation day-to-day. If we know conservation work is ineffective, then we shouldn’t continue to pour resources into it. Having these conversations threatens the power we place in the existing status quo of conservation research, policy and programming.

These conversations are difficult, particularly when well-loved programs and the jobs of conservationists themselves are at stake.

This work asks a bolder choice of all conservationists, not to just do what we’ve always done but to commit to only doing work that makes an impact. As evaluator Margoluis and colleagues put it, we must not let the urgency of biodiversity loss divert us from what is important – drawing on the best evidence we can to deliver conservation that is truly impactful.

Victoria Pilbeam is a Senior Consultant at Clear Horizon Consulting.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

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Thought piece: does extinction matter?

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Dr Niki Rust, a Strategic Communications Adviser at the Luc Hoffmann Institute.

Today is Global Tiger Day. Tigers symbolise many things to many people: fear, dominance, beauty, death, spirituality, wilderness, terror and awe. Ever since early Hominids wandered into the territories of Panthera tigris tens of thousands of years ago, humans (and our predecessors) have had a complicated relationship with this big cat.

For people living with tigers, there are often great costs associated with this uncomfortable coexistence. Human-tiger conflict – where tigers killed people and their livestock and, in retaliation, people killed tigers – threatens the livelihoods of local communities as well as the very existence of this big cat. Whilst many conservationists focus on trying to highlight the benefits that biodiversity brings to humanity and the costs associated with biodiversity loss, we cannot escape the hard truth that some biodiversity is worth more to us than others.

So, here’s a heretic question: does it even matter if the tiger goes extinct? Indeed, the species has been extirpated from the vast majority of its previous range and yet the world hasn’t ended. Like the extinct thylacine (exterminated by humans), if the last tiger were killed, Homo sapiens have an immaculate ability to adapt and continue. Large carnivores have been removed from huge swathes of their historic territories, but life continues. Historically, widespread culling of predators by American pioneers was seen as a form of progress; as the number of predators declined, the number of livestock farms expanded. The uncomfortable reality is that, until very recently, humanity has largely benefited from the systematic destruction of much of nature.

Being from the UK, I am acutely aware that this small island used to be home to wolves, bears and lynx. Since these species were wiped out many moons ago, we do not appear to have noticed any negative effects. Yes, we have more deer in Scotland eating sapling trees than we would have had if we still had large carnivores; yes, the meso-carnivores, like badgers and foxes, might now have an easier time not being out-competed by bigger predators, but on the whole, life ticks on.

We must face the awkward truth that, despite widespread biodiversity loss, the UK has one of the biggest economies in the world. We have pillaged our environment (and those of many other nations) whilst reaping the benefits for ourselves. So, one has to ask: which species matter to humanity if they go extinct, and which don’t? And, furthermore, which species matter to whom? If it matters for all of us to lose biodiversity, why are we not seeing the costs of the biodiversity lost to date?  Is it because we are measuring and valuing the wrong things? Or because we have not yet reached a tipping point where biodiversity loss has created widespread negative costs for humans?

The rise of the term “natural capital” could be one way to realign our measurement system to ensure we are capturing the right values when assessing how much nature means to us. Yet, despite widespread lobbying by some environmental NGOs to adopt such an approach, most nations have yet to include any form of natural capital accounting in their nation’s asset calculations. Conversely, recent actions by some of the world’s most powerful leaders have sought to relax conservation regulations so as to mine even more natural resources, thereby causing further biodiversity loss. Have we therefore failed to come up with an effective way of showing the importance of what biodiversity means to us?

I am in no way promoting the idea that we should just sit back and wait for the tiger, or any other species for that matter, to be snuffed out. What I am trying to do is raise the notion that perhaps biodiversity may not have much clout in a human-dominated world where people are more concerned about their next paycheque or meal than they are about saving some aloof species that threatens their livelihoods and families.

Morally, conservationists may think we have the upper hand; “but these species belong on earth, they have intrinsic value, they have monetary worth, they are keystone species”, I hear you say. But, for the majority of humanity, we have failed to provide a way of valuing biodiversity and conveying that value to people, so that it means something to everyone. This is one of the biggest challenges that conservationists must address.

Moving forward, we must learn to find ways to make biodiversity matter to everyone. This, I feel, can be achieved through a focus on values, as it is these that guide human behaviour. We need to understand the diversity in values held by different people towards biodiversity, use holistic metrics to measure tangible and intangible natural capital, and nurture the values that intrinsically many of us have towards life on earth. If we do not value nature, how can we protect it?

Dr Niki Rust is a Strategic Communications Adviser at the Luc Hoffmann Institute and an Environmental Social Scientist at Newcastle University.

The content of this thought piece represents the authors’ own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

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Thought piece: bridging aspirations and biodiversity conservation

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Dr Santiago Izquierdo-Tort, a Consultant at Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos and a Senior Researcher at ITAM Centre for Energy and Natural Resources.

“I started working since I was young. My father gave me a small parcel. We like a lot when we knock down a forest. We knock down a forest area, bring in chainsaws and burn, and we get really nice maize…The goal of a farmer is to desolate everything and see what one can put there. This is the goal of many ejidatarios…The people who came here, like my father, used to work for rich people. They had no land”

 Manuel Martinez

Meet Manuel Martinez, an ejidatario (landholder) from Flor del Marqués, a community in Selva Lacandona, one of the last remaining tropical forest areas in Mexico. Manuel is one of almost twelve thousand people who live in the municipality Marqués de Comillas (MdC), a region that was only permanently settled in the 1970s as the result of government-led agricultural frontier policies aimed to bring ‘idle’ forestlands into production and to solve peasant land demands. Like many other ejidatarios in MdC, Manuel is both a crop farmer and a rancher. In less than 50 years, more than half of the forests in MdC have been converted to crop fields and pastures.

This is a common scenario in the tropics: forest-dwellers at the resource base who aspire to become peasants and ranchers; and people who ‘see’ forests as potential crop fields and pastures, where forests represent a source of livelihood to extract timber, hunt, fish, and engage in other legal and illegal activities. Evidently, these aspirations sharply contrast with those of conservation communities concerned with safekeeping wildlife: communities who see forests as the refugee of thousands of animal and plant species, and for whom forests provide valuable ecosystem services that benefit many people locally and abroad.

Decades’ worth of efforts with different ‘carrots and sticks’ for biodiversity conservation have made their way into the world’s tropics, with crucial effects in some contexts. Such interventions have ranged from ‘command and control’ instruments that restrict human activity on nature to projects that promote sustainable resource use or seek to displace productive activities away from ecosystems, as well as market-based instruments that provide direct incentives for biodiversity protection, such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) programmes. Indeed, the last well-conserved forest patches in southeast Selva Lacandona have been maintained by a combination of instruments – protected areas, PES programmes, community-based ecotourism projects – and the uninterrupted presence of committed NGOs such as Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos, and have helped secure viable populations of endangered species such as jaguar, white-lipped peccary, and scarlet macaw.

Despite some progress, we seem to barely scratch the surface when it comes to understanding and addressing the long-term, fundamental processes at the core of biodiversity loss. There remains a strong need to go beyond how people respond to short-term nudges, both positive (incentives) and negative (coercion), and rather move towards the broader set of motivations – philosophical, cultural, ethical – that together drive actions that affect biodiversity. If narrow, short-term decisions influence biodiversity but result from more fundamental issues that people hope and dream of achieving, what if we directly examine how such behavioural foundations are formed and evolve?

What if we recast biodiversity research and practice in terms of aspirations?

A lens on aspirations would involve asking different types of questions. What if instead of focusing on the questions of how –how people respond to incentives or how behaviour is influenced by ‘opportunity costs’ and ‘intrinsic’ motivations for conservation –we focus on the key questions to do with why? For instance, why does Manuel like to knock down forests? Why do people in the tropics aspire to be cowboys? Why do people overharvest timber, overhunt, overfish, and engage in illegal trafficking?

A lens on aspirations would require searching for answers in yet unchartered domains of human life. If biodiversity-damaging decisions are fundamentally influenced by people’s hopes and dreams, then the first place to search for clues is in people’s culture and history. Does religion play a role in the activities that cause biodiversity loss, or the things people watch on television and the internet, or music themes and lyrics, or achieving status among peers, or childhood memories like Manuel’s?

Clearly, the notion of linking aspirations with biodiversity raises more questions than answers. As the field of biodiversity conservation seems to be running out of ideas to protect its very being, and the world’s biological diversity is certainly running out of time, hopefully thinking about people’s aspirations – from local to global – may trigger much-needed discussions on the conflicts that result from different worldviews regarding biodiversity, and offer new places from where to find inspiration in our quest to design and implement more effective and resilient interventions.

Dr Santiago Izquierdo-Tort is a Consultant at Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos and a Senior Researcher at ITAM Centre for Energy and Natural Resources.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

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Thought piece: the concept of ‘palimpsest’ to reorient biodiversity

The concept of “palimpsest” to reorient biodiversity conservation in a previously written world, a #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Tlacaelel Rivera Núñez

The concept ‘Anthropocene’ has brought to light the significant global impact of human activities on natural systems globally. While the term initially arose as an academic metaphor, in just a few years this concept has influenced an emerging scientific and political agenda oriented toward documenting and denouncing multiple negative anthropogenic factors which have led to global change.

Not all large-scale environmental transformations by human societies have been intrinsically destructive. Many local cultures have existed over time that radically – though constructively – modified the environment in which they inhabit. The idea that human action always degrades the environment may be denominated “Antropogenesis”. Rather than consisting of a naïve image of the ‘Good Anthropocene’, this complementary concept seeks to add to the biodiversity debate a plurality of historic human expressions of environmental construction that orthodox conservationist thinking have invisibilised (‘Anthropo-not-seen’).

One concept of utmost importance in transcending the wilderness ‘pristine syndrome’ of biological conservationism is expressed by the Greek episteme ‘palimpsest’: a manuscript that conserves traces of previous writings that are difficult to observe because the same surface has been rewritten. Archaeology and Historical Ecology have reconceived the concept of palimpsest as a historic landscape that contains successive layers of environmental change in which Homo sapiens act as a keystone species through a variety of cultural expressions. The challenge is to determine the nature and magnitude of the cumulative effects resulting from such transformations.

Research on palimpsests analyses geographies that constitute what the Roman philosopher Cicero denominated a ‘second world’ – environments constructed based on either centuries-old histories (cultural landscapes) or histories developed over millennia (domesticated landscapes), both of which may be historically differentiated from environments resulting from only decades of management (first-nature landscapes).

Historical landscapes – or palimpsests – are constructed through so-called ‘human-mediated disturbances’, which are controlled via intermediate physical and biotic transformations by local cultures. These transformations are through environmental management practices that generally take place at the margin of intensive, industrial, and globalized natural resource use. Principle human-mediated disturbances that have been documented around the world include: 

  • controlled use of fire in such an intensity, frequency, temporality, and scale to achieve total ecosystem rechange; availability of biomass for agricultural purposes in tropical environments; or avoidance of catastrophic natural fire in dense forests;
  • deviation, narrowing, or expansion of rivers, lakes, coastal systems, or wetlands to settle land and/or obtain water for domestic purposes, agriculture, fishing, and aquaculture; and
  • construction of anthropogenic soils by re-depositing sediments, inducing erosion, pyrolysis (slow-combustion), or enhancing the soil microbiota.

Tlacaelel Rivera Núñez: “ecological handprints” of a Maya Lacandon (Hach Winik, “True Men”) Shaman developing the traditional ceremony for the care of nature

Intermediate physical and biotic transformations may result in counterintuitive consequences for biodiversity conservation as based on classic understandings of biodiversity such as Island Biogeography, Refuge Theory, Environmental Gradients, Conservation Biology, Restoration Ecology, and Invasion Biology. Many cases have been documented of human-mediated disturbances impacting the quality of habitats, constructing new ecological niches, contributing to landscape heterogeneity. These disturbances functionally modify source-sink population dynamics, as well as migratory patterns through matrices of high connectivity, and the composition of alpha, beta, and gamma diversities.

Thus, cultural groups with a long history of occupation of a given environment and livelihoods that directly depend on their immediate environment consciously balance ecological functionality with human utility. This results in biocultural landscapes that depend on local management for their maintenance. The approaches of New Ecology, Nonequilibrium Landscapes, and Nature’s Matrix prove fundamental to understanding such processes.

Human-mediated disturbances result from – and lead to – cultural expressions of great importance for preserving biodiversity. Cultural manifestations intimately linked to the biological diversity of a landscape include symbolic expressions such as people’s cosmogonies, social norms and local institutions, oral traditions, systems of inheritance and cultural transmission, ethnolinguistics and metaphorical thought, relations ontologies, ecological ethos, sacred ecologies, and ritual for symbolic and regulatory purposes. In the same way, among these cultural manifestations are material expressions such as traditional ecological knowledge, communitarian territorial zoning, local taxonomic systems, culinary practices, ethnomedicine, and traditional technologies.

Modern societies tend to assume that the future is ahead and the past behind us. However, for some cultural groups, the past guides future possibilities that approach us from behind. Reconceiving biodiversity conservation according to the concept of palimpsest involves the science and technique of learning to read previously recorded landscapes in order to creatively rewrite over them based on 21st-century challenges. Over the ‘Capitalocene’ canvas covered by ecological footprints that geopolitically point to the Global North, “ecological handprints” that signal certain geographies of the Global South represent human legacies that merit space in biodiversity conservation research and practice agendas around the world.

Tlacaelel Rivera Núñez, a PhD Candidate at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur and from Mexico

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

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Thought piece: when is growth good enough?

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Natalie Knowles, a PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo.

‘Good enough’ has acquired a negative connotation – a second-best, a consolation prize or a lack of effort. But what if society encouraged ‘good enough’? What if ‘good enough’ sat at the precipice between ‘something good’ and ‘too much of something good’? What if we applauded the effort it takes to say ‘enough’ to something good and stop before reaching too much?

Our ever-increasing material consumption destroys biodiversity at unprecedented rates, our unending CO2 emissions push our climate to extreme change, and our rising pollution levels strangle our oceans. In short, our world is in an environmental crisis because, as a society, we assume that more is better and don’t know when or how to say ‘enough’.

Rather than changing our laws, behaviour, economic system, or societal values, we ask questions like ‘what constitutes a dangerous degree of biodiversity loss, CO2 emissions, or plastic pollution?’ and toe this vague, self-proclaimed line. We add the tagline ‘sustainability’ and continue with business-as-usual, pursuing exponential growth, albeit with added efficiencies.

Efficiencies promise us more for less. More products, progress, wealth, growth, development for fewer resources, cost, effort, hardship. But, in a crisis of extinctions, finite resources, and cumulative pollution, efficiencies do not stop the crisis; efficiencies merely slow down our speed of destruction. Biodiversity loss is irreversible; any rate may be catastrophic. Unless deforestation rates equal regeneration, each day our world has fewer trees. Without reaching carbon neutral, efficient energy use adds carbon to our atmosphere exacerbating global climate change. Making our destruction of nature more efficient is not ‘good enough’. Despite being at the core of current sustainability rhetoric, efficiency can save time, money, and energy but not the planet.

Rather than ‘more for less’ we just need ‘less’. We need to understand that infinite and exponential consumption isn’t possible within a finite world. Rather than efficiency, we need sufficiency. To avoid ecological overshoot, we must restrain our consumption of nature to levels that balance regeneration.

Individually, we understand the logic of sufficiency, moderating our food consumption or money spending, knowing there is ‘good enough’, followed closely by ‘too much’. Scaling this logic up to the global economy is much more difficult, particularly when corporate profits come into play. Within the context of a capitalist economy of unending growth – of ‘more is better’ – limiting natural resource consumption, production, and profits make no sense unless the risks are explicit and visible.

Our contemporary economy is dependent on nature, including a stable climate and healthy ecosystems. Environmental degradation – which causes physical disruption, regulatory costs, and devalued brand reputation – motivates corporations to recognise when natural resource consumption reaches a state of ‘good enough’ and then halts or pay for the excess. Our current system fails by hiding most environmental costs. To showcase these costs, Nature must be given rights.

Our rights as humans, citizens, consumers, and stockholders are uncontested. We voice our grievances when something negatively impacts us and act in our own best interest. Nature – unable to speak nor act in defence of its own best interest – has no rights. Yet the corporation – also unable to speak or act – has the same rights as a human and a spokesperson to voice grievances and take action on its behalf. As Christopher Stone says, “until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ – those of us who are holding rights at the time.” Without rights, Nature becomes a resource for us to use rather than having the intrinsic right to exist unharmed.

Our current system doesn’t leave Nature’s interests unprotected but not all injury to it is considered’. Environmental degradation that affects a ‘non-rights-holder’ goes unnoticed and we fail to pay our debts where they are due. If someone protests a negative impact towards Nature, the cost of damage is reimbursed in dollars to the human or corporate protester. Lack of direct reconciliation to Nature affects ecological system functioning as well as exacerbates climate change. Damage should be remedied by making Nature whole again.

As with corporations, giving Nature rights is possible: Ecuador, New Zealand and India have been leaders passing Right of Nature laws. With rights, the frame shifts from ‘resource’ to ‘stakeholder’, legally incentivising corporations to say ‘good enough’ to Nature’s degradation. Rather than trying to assess the monetary cost of environmental degradation, corporations that extend into the realm of ‘too much’ could pay debts directly to Nature through regeneration, which could benefit ecological functions, future generations and economic sustainability. One question remains; who should speak on Nature’s behalf?

Natalie Knowles, PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

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Thought piece: perceiving the livingscapes we are within

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Madhurya BalanCollaborator at The Forest Way

If I were to trace the outline of the horizon where I live now, it would be a few distant ridges that break the flat plains – except for a single, large, majestic and ancient hill, in close range, that rises to the sky. The Arunachala hill with its granite boulders is part of the Archean, or first, rock formations from the initial cooling of the Earth. It stands, embodying the oldest evidence of studied geology and a tapestry of cultural stories of origin and worship.

The literature of the language of this land, from over two thousand years ago, created beautiful poems describing the inner landscape of the emotions of two lovers reflected in the outer scape of the land. The names of the thinais or landscapes were given from the most characteristic flower of that landscape. They are kurunji, mullai, marudam, neithal and paalai or mountain, forest, grassland, coast, and parched wasteland respectively; the emotions being of love and union, a time of waiting, the quarrelling of lovers’ differences, the pining of distance and the hurt of separation.

An elegant exercise is to imagine how interwoven a language and culture would have been to the land that birthed its people.

Every grain coaxed from its fertile earth, each fruit from the generosity of its season, each home, medicine, fibres of cloth, dye, tool, adornment being a request from the alive landscape that they are within. Is it not presumptuous then, to think that such an epic work of poetry would be speaking merely of just humans?

I ask then, what if the lovers embodied in the poems are the sky and the earth? Making the mountains where clouds birth rain for the thick groves and high grassland to pour down as streams and rivers, a description of true union. Forests, where with the wisdom of lovers who know themselves to be soulmates, does water stored deep in the soil reach out to meet the abundant seasonal rains. Grasslands, a naturally sensitive balance where people, through cultivation and grazing of their cattle, inevitably change the relationship between the rain and the land that its drops merge into; as an aggressive third wheel could wobble a lover’s balance. The furrowing line drawn between the coastal land and the sea, where clouds gather over the water and are quickly swept inland; of intermittent, brief and fleeting moments of meeting that can leave one pining for the other’s presence. And lastly, desert land as a severing all life of the land, life that was a messenger of this love between the sky and earth; a severing caused not by the lovers themselves but by another force that traumatically separates them.

Consider this: each continuous landscape holds within it multiple events in geological time that define the shape of the land, the composition of its rocks, the types of its soils – all of which would change several times over with the folding, rising, crumbling and sinking of the earth’s crust.

Consider this: the same continuous land holds within its atmosphere different flows of ocean currents, different cloud formations, types and amounts of precipitation, shifting shapes of stored and flowing water– all of which would have rhythmic patterns over millennia, gradually shifting with different climatic epochs based on deep time cycles of the planet.

Consider this: life, which holds infinite possibility genetically, would respond to long periods of stability and also conditions of extreme change through variation.

To look for and acknowledge these signatures and imprints in a landscape, to me is perceiving a livingscape.

If we restrict ourselves at only looking to the last century for alternative narratives to draw from, it would be a myopic mistake. A transformation of consciousness and awareness can begin with people beginning to read and understand their livingscape together, to begin to ask questions based in experiential truth.

So, what do you inhabit as living space, how much around it can you hold in your peripheral sense of belonging? How much of its natural flows and cycles have you experienced? Have you watched the source of where your water comes from swell and shrink with the seasons? And what are ways that we can embody and express what is well-being for us, each other, other living beings and the land?

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

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Thought piece: biotic diversity revisited

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Daniel P. Faith of the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney, Australia.
The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

The heart of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative is a “reframing of ‘biodiversity’”. Here, I will describe how my own recent work may add some useful perspectives. I have been ‘revisiting’ biodiversity by considering foundational ideas forged during the period before the emergence of the term. This looking back at the pre-history of ‘biodiversity’ (the history of the term before it was invented) reveals early support for the idea that ‘biotic diversity’ (one of several ‘biodiversity’ synonyms from the 1970s) is about variety, and is about the value of such variety in maintaining options for humanity (including ‘insurance’ and ‘option value’).‘Biodiversity option value’ refers to the idea that living variation is valuable because we cannot predict which elements (e.g. species) will provide uses/benefits in the future; ‘biodiversity insurance value’ refers to the idea that living variation is valuable because we cannot predict which elements will help maintain stability/integrity in the face of future changes.

My revisiting of the term ‘biodiversity’ supports a back-to-basics framing that counters the now-common idea that ‘biodiversity’ should holistically capture everything we want to conserve or even everything we like about the environment. This unfortunate trend has created an increasing muddling of biodiversity’s narratives. For example, presuming that ‘biodiversity’ includes any ecological ‘diversity’ index not only has created a less coherent biodiversity narrative, but also has coincided with a neglect of core values of variety, including option value.

Biodiversity Revisited might appear to echo my concerns in lamenting what it calls a “muddled” biodiversity narrative. However, I’m now troubled by the rationale for this initiative. While I have argued that too much has been packed into the ‘biodiversity’ story, Biodiversity Revisited argues that biodiversity science and its narratives have failed in not being broad or inclusive enough. The initiative argues that ‘biodiversity’ has not been “a compelling object for sufficient action to halt the degradation of the diversity of life on Earth,” and argues that “a more holistic conceptual framing may create a more compelling object”.

I’m concerned about some presumptions in Biodiversity Revisited. For example, reference is repeatedly made to the broad ecological notion of ‘diversity’ as a focus of holistic approaches. This may contribute to our current muddled biodiversity narratives. Similarly, an ecological emphasis is also found in the stated presumption that it is vital to determine the level of “dangerous” biodiversity loss. Global biodiversity option values may not have such thresholds.

These strong ecological perspectives in Biodiversity Revisited reignite my concerns about possible neglect of the core values of ‘biodiversity-as-variety’. Indeed, Biodiversity Revisited argues:

“Integrating future concerns into current day decision-making is of existential importance to humanity, yet the dominant approaches to managing biodiversity are largely reactive and backwards looking – seeking to conserve species or landscape as it was in the past.”

You might say, “‘backwards looking’ – that can’t be good!”. Yet, the basis for biodiversity’s maintenance of options is exactly that – we look back at the past in appreciating the living variation that evolutionary processes have produced. This is highlighted in IPBES’ use of evolutionary heritage (phylogenetic diversity) as one indicator of maintenance of options for humanity. Conserving the past is one of the most forward-looking things we can do.

This claim about “backwards looking” is a supposed limitation of biodiversity science and narratives. However, such critiques may reflect more that Biodiversity Revisited is interested in holism than in the biodiversity crisis. For example, the criticism that biodiversity “efforts have been too narrowly focused on species” seems over-stated in the face of the IPBES recent assessment suggesting one million species are at risk of extinction. ‘Biodiversity’ is not failing us; we are failing biodiversity.

The solution, I think, is back to basics – call it “Biotic Diversity Revisited”. This better recognises the pre-history origins of the biodiversity concept, promoting ‘variety’ and its various values to humanity, while seeking integration with other needs of society. The pre-history suggests that biodiversity as variety offers clear benefits for us, providing a compelling reason to take action about biodiversity loss. In contrast, holistically packing everything into new narratives may turn out to be the very thing that invites future criticisms of failing to resonate, of vagueness, and of lack of a coherent message.

The CBD, in its 2050 vision, noted that transformational change involves trade-offs among the different needs of society. This seems best served by articulating a clear core meaning of biodiversity-as-variety. I believe that this is the resonating, less-vague, coherent message that not only enables traction regarding the biodiversity crisis, but also enables exploration of trade-offs and synergies, and so ultimately better serves broader biosphere issues.

© Tree of Life Web Project

The content of this thought piece represents the authors’ own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions. 

Daniel P Faith is based at the Australian Museum Research Institute in Sydney

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Thought piece: revisiting biodiversity in a village of mixed perspectives

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Carina Wyborn and Jasper Montana.

Something needs to change in the way we deal with biodiversity decline. The question is what? This problematic is at the heart of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative, and whether scraping off the wallpaper or rebuilding the house could be the solution, the process offers potential to explore the many foundations upon which biodiversity communities seek to build the future of the field.

Biodiversity Revisited is perhaps the first comprehensive collaborative and reflexive analysis of the construct of ‘biodiversity’ and the science, policy and action that has ensued since the term was coined in the 1980s. Launched in early 2019, the initiative has already been host to a range of online and offline dialogues about how to remedy the loss of natural ecosystems and lack of traction in policy and practice. As the initiative dives into revisiting biodiversity, the choice of boundaries and the foundations from which to move forward are as varied as the people involved. Such diversity has already generated interesting results. To crudely characterise some of these perspectives, we take the metaphor of home renovation in a village of mixed perspectives:

The first house we encounter is being repainted, and we call it the rational logic. In this house, the problem is defined by a narrative that suggests people don’t know enough about biodiversity loss and therefore don’t care and don’t act. From this viewpoint, the biodiversity community just needs to get better at capturing people’s attention, communicating the facts of biodiversity loss, and – increasingly – appealing to people’s emotions and base instincts. After all, you can’t implement effective strategies without policy, and you can’t get policy traction and political will without awareness. Accordingly, the task at hand is to improve how we ‘educate’ or ‘persuade’ more people to care, leading to new strategies for communicating research, advocacy for evidence-based decision-making, and eye-catching conservation social outreach campaigns. This rational logic seeks to enlighten ‘the public’, after which action is expected to ensue.

The second house we encounter is being rebuilt as an apartment block of increasingly interconnected dwellings, which we call the revisionist logic. In this place, the problem is defined by a narrative that we need new concepts that can more effectively capture the problem or engage the public and provide a compelling pathway for action. Doing things better is not enough; perhaps we need to try different things. Some argue that biodiversity is too abstract and that the scientific concept has taken ‘nature’ away from the everyday experience of individuals who relate to the forests, rivers, or gardens where they live and work. Could it be that academic communities operate with slightly different interpretations of biodiversity, leading to siloed systems of understanding of the problem and siloed policy responses to it? The revisionist logic looks enviously at the neighbour’s house, noting that climate change appears to have surpassed biodiversity loss or land degradation as ‘the environmental challenge of the 21 st century’. From the revisionist perspective, it might be pertinent to ask: “how can we learn from the climate agenda?”. Here, solutions involve developing a clearer definition of the word ‘biodiversity’, and perhaps finding a different term that lends itself to a more holistic appreciation of the Earth system. The ‘Anthropocene’ is one, the ‘biosphere’ another. Both of these concepts do what climate or biodiversity don’t alone: they stress the interconnections between biogeophysical systems, the atmosphere and chemical nutrient cycling. This revisionist logic seeks to systematise so that biodiversity becomes more coherent and relevant, after which action is expected to ensue.

The final house has been rebuilt as a temporary dwelling in which the distinction between the inside and outside is not always clear. We call it reflexive logic. In this house, the social, cultural, political and institutional ways of understanding the natural world – and how we as individuals, communities, societies and nations interact with it – are complex. We don’t always know the right things to do. From this perspective, actions and assumptions are reflected upon, but also the very foundations of values, beliefs and worldviews are questioned. A reflexive logic recognises the need to ask difficult questions: Is biodiversity even the right problem to focus on? Whose values should be accounted for, and how? How can pluralist perspectives – those that accommodate different knowledges and values – be reconciled with a need to pivot social, cultural and political norms away from those that damage the natural world and create widespread inequalities? In short, this perspective asks what it means to be human in the 21st century. This reflexive logic seeks to problematise our very attempts to categorise nature in the first place, the implicit value judgements we make in trying to organise our communities, and the very idea that action follows knowledge. Here, action is not necessarily expected to ensue. The action of ‘expecting action’ is already an action in itself.

The Biodiversity Revisited initiative is revealing that the dwellings in which biodiversity communities live are incredibly diverse. However, there remains a risk that people fail to see or acknowledge this diversity. Without awareness of the different problem framings and underlying assumptions that exist, people can frequently talk past each other and fail to understand what others are saying. If we extend our metaphor to consider the Biodiversity Revisited initiative as a village, we hope it will be one in which voices can be heard, listening can take place, and new relations can be made. For some, it will be the start of building new, unimagined things. For others, it will be an opportunity to showcase their existing projects.

With a little luck, Biodiversity Revisited might offer a new appreciation of the many foundations needed to make vibrant and effective communities for biodiversity, and an open mind to let new and different approaches thrive.

Carina Wyborn is the Research Advisor at Luc Hoffmann Institute.

Jasper Montana is a Research Fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

The content of this thought piece represents the authors’ own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

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Thought piece: an Open Letter to Conservation

A #BiodiversityRevisited thought piece by Elliot Connor, founder of Human Nature.
The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.

An Open Letter to Conservation

To the people who act for life,

You know we are all connected to the Earth. Yet few of us act for it. And those who do, do so alone. This needs to change.

On 15th March, 150,000 students across my home country, Australia, chose to follow the example of a single Swedish girl the same age as myself and strike against our widespread inaction against climate change. After decades of denial, popular pressure for environmentally sustainable policies is mounting at a rate never before seen. This is overwhelmingly positive news… and yet it is not enough.

Whilst many in the younger generation have seen the light with respect to our carbon footprint, even the most ardent supporters of this movement remain clueless when it comes to the equally pressing issue of biodiversity loss. We may change our ways and live ‘green’ as can be, but the threats posed by habitat degradation, animal trafficking, and invasive species will continue ad infinitum unless an equal miracle can be wrought here too.

Imagine if anyone could, on a whim, contribute in a meaningful and quantifiable way to conservation. It’s not impossible – underfunded, poorly resourced and unappreciated, environmental organisations ought to be dying for the chance to get a few eager and skilled volunteers under their belt. And yet few do. I myself have contacted literally hundreds of such groups, and can safely say that only half of them responded; an immense problem in itself.

Imagine if people could be engaged with caring for our nature. If they could sit down for dinner on a Friday evening and tune in for a presentation by Chad Frischmann of Project Drawdown, or perhaps the great E.O. Wilson of Half Earth Project fame. Both of these ideas have the potential to change the world if only people were listening.

Imagine if conservation were for the many, rather than the few. I have volunteered with more environmental groups than I can remember, and never have I met anyone even close to my age. Natural sciences aren’t taught at school, and the vast majority of those old, retired volunteers I have worked with honestly believe that us youth don’t give a damn about nature. Most don’t – some do.

I’ll quit with the poetry now, and speak to you straight. 

The way I see it, conservation organisations are falling behind. You are preaching to the converted, squabbling over funds that don’t exist, and using the same methods and goals that have been flaunted in these circles for the past half-century: safeguarding the most iconic species, protecting patches of habitat.

The great conservationist Gerald Durrell once said: 

“Animals and plants have no MP they can write to; they can’t perform sit-down strikes or, indeed, strikes of any sort; they have nobody to speak for them except us, the human beings who share the world with them but do not own it.”

Once every so often, we would do well to heed his words and consider briefly just how well we represent the animals and plants that are our kin.

Best wishes for all of your pursuits,

The future.

Related Reading: Biodiversity Revisited