A ruse of a title that, once again, focuses on the “new conservation” debate, this time with the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in mind.
Matt came into my office the other day railing about a new article that just came out that speaks to the relationship between business and conservation. I don’t link or cite that article here because it is drivel and no one should waste time reading it. Suffice it to say the authors conclude that corporations are taking stock of business practices and employing the help of staff ecologists, NGO’s and University researchers to help improve business bottom lines through better management of the environment. Genuinely or ingenuously; good for them. This is touted as a new approach to conservation. To us this sounds like business planning leverages that small uptick in ecologists deciding to be useful to society. High fives for all involved; let’s have some more of that tasty kool-aid.
In parallel, I stumbled into a couple of papers on the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. This is the UN-sponsored panel that aspires to be the authoritative international body that drives international policy for nature. No small aspiration. But, they see it as: IPBES is to biodiversity loss as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Platform on Climate Change) is to climate change. The international conservation consequences may be large; it might be worth paying attention. We have international policies (e.g., CITES, RAMSAR, CBD...). These policies have mixed reviews, but generally, I think, we can all agree that they are responsible for doing good here and there, and have accomplished a lot less good for nature than we would have hoped.
The IPBES lead authors launched the public face of their effort in 2015 with two publications that advertise their CF – Conceptual Framework for the IPBES (Fig 1). If you want to look these up, they are Diaz et al, A Rosetta Stone for Nature’s benefits to people (PLOS Biology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002040) and Diaz et al, The IPBES Conceptual Framework – connecting nature and people. (Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14: 1-16).
OK, so now here you go with some dangerous ‘new conservation’ thinking. And, it gets tricky. The basic framework distinguishes between ‘western science’, depicted in green in this figure, and ‘other knowledge systems’ in blue, or so says the figure legend. The framework discusses intrinsic values of nature, dismissing them from economic evaluation. However, they capture ‘relational values’ as those where humans may value the existence value of species (an intrinsic value) as a component of a ‘good life’ in ‘harmony with nature.’ These are their words, people, not mine.
Nevertheless, they are striving quite explicitly to economize nature by speaking of instrumental valuation methods (relational or not) that can be used by which we value nature. And, herein we find the snake in the grass. We have loads of resource economists who are happily working away on these valuation methods and, having been involved in one such effort, I can attest that they can be impressively complex and sophisticated. However, they all expect to predict value as we see value now.
We fully understand that resource economics, and valuation of nature procedures struggle with two attributes. First, we can only really model rationale actors that act in their best economic interest at all times. Yet we know that people economically misbehave all the time. People are fickle, and hence models predict behavior wrong not so infrequently.
Second, it is very difficult to consider future discounting when we value nature, yet we recognize this as incredibly important. We can ask how much people are willing to pay now for conserving something, but we can’t assess how much they might pay in the future when they are considerably more at risk.
Some examples might help. The ‘relational value’ of a polar bear to the 15th century Inuit may be very low given that, like as not, his encounter with the beast will end up in a meal for the polar bear. Yet now, the relational value of polar bears appears quite high given their dire condition, attractive features and frequent press. Nevertheless, we have already changed the environment sufficiently that there may be no way that we can save the polar bear from the ravages of an ice free Arctic summer. The time to act was some time ago, when the relational value, or any other instrumental value was low. Hence, valuing nature as we see it now seems like a recipe for driving shifting baselines. That can’t be good for nature or people.
1ringing this closer to home, the value of clean water was formerly very low, on our watery planet. With 7 billion people, a lot of severely degraded surface water, and severely depleted groundwater, clean water now often pencils out well for ecosystem protection in the ecosystem services ledger; too little, too late by all accounts. Natural Capital projects are beginning to create opportunities to protect water, but falling severely short of solving the world’s water poverty issues.
The IBPES appears to be moving in the direction of working on a world where we will be relegated to live in a world where tiny vestigial fragments of nature will remain when things become so difficult that they begin to pencil out for protection. And, yes, this is a viewpoint from the comfort of the western world where I don’t have to worry about access to food and water. I get that. I am not saying it is easy.
However, isn’t nature much the richer in a world where we use ridiculously coarse rules, such as the Convention on Biodiversity’s (CBD) Aichi Target 11 of 17% of representative ecosystems, as the ‘rule’? I think that this beats the crap out of working on a mathematically weak rendering of protecting what calculates out to be the value of protection? The latter places a lot of faith in the dismal science. Let’s remember, economics is lovingly called the dismal science for a reason: economics has perfected the art of prediction, irrespective of the accuracy of those predictions.
OK, but how do we get there? The world is widely failing at achieving the Aichi Targets. The simple counter-argument to simple rules is that we fail at them because people are striving for some minimal quality of life. This struggle comes at the expense of natural resources and we can’t actually protect nature until we can make it of value to the people who have to live with those protections. That is a substantial critique of the CBD approach. Nevertheless, this is more about a process of doing the actual protecting of nature (governance, social change, social balance, income inequality…) rather than academic scholarship on predicting how much we should value nature, or why we should value nature more.
Besides, who gets incentivized to do what under these international guidelines. The CBD is an international treaty and compels governments to do something. As best I can tell, economizing nature is being used to focus the efforts of NGO’s. That is fine, but let’s face facts; the contribution of NGO’s to global conservation is a small fraction of the contribution of governments and international aid programs.
Conservation science is replete with academic binges along pathways that we are convinced will lead to a better future. And, I suppose that we should be doing that. However, these binges have been universally followed by a sober reality that this new approach or that new approach has constrained application and that it is not the general unifying solution for conservation science. Island Biogeography as a model for reserve design and population viability analysis for species management are two excellent examples.
So, now we are nearing the height of the economics way of conservation. At least I hope we are. I hope we can get through this as quickly as possible so that we can stop with all the fawning over valuing nature and get to the business of this: population growth, poverty, governance of people and the notion that saving nature will be very different in wealthy nations than it will be in impoverished ones. It is a difficult task. It takes all kinds of tools. Some will work better in some places than others. Partnering with companies; looking for economic win-wins, estimating natural value and arguing natural capital are tools that can be handy for particular problems in particular places. They aren’t new conservation, and this isn’t a revolution.
Want to read more? Try this: D.S. Maier and A. Feest. 2016. The IPBES Conceptual Framework: an unhelpful start. J. Agric. Environ. Ethics 29:327-347.
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