Thought piece: is what we’re doing working?

An independent thought piece brought to you 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.

Boston Biodiversity Talks: Lindsey Elliott

Biodiversity Revisited is a collaborative thought leadership process to co-produce a new, integrated five-year research agenda to effectively sustain life on Earth. As part of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative, the Boston Biodiversity Talks took place in May 2019 at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, USA, to begin exploring fresh thinking around biodiversity.

Here, Lindsey Elliott, a PhD Candidate at the Open University, compares the territoriality seen in wild animals to the territoriality seen between conservation organisations. She asks how can we ensure that territoriality doesn’t hinder us in achieving our conservation missions?

Biodiversity Revisited is an initiative of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, in collaboration with ETH ZürichFuture EarthUniversity of Cambridge Conservation Research InstituteUniversity College London Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research and WWF. The initiative exists thanks to generous funding from the NOMIS Foundation, the MAVA Foundation and WWF International.

Thought piece: bridging aspirations and biodiversity conservation

An independent thought piece brought to you 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.

Boston Biodiversity Talks:
Dr Jon Hutton

Biodiversity Revisited is a collaborative thought leadership process to co-produce a new, integrated five-year research agenda to effectively sustain life on Earth. As part of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative, the Boston Biodiversity Talks took place in May 2019 at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, USA, to begin exploring fresh thinking around biodiversity.

Here, Dr Jon Hutton, Director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, reflects on the signs of human-caused biodiversity loss all around us – and how we can change course. He highlights the zeitgeist moment that biodiversity is currently experiencing and urges the global community to seize this opportunity for momentum to bring about meaningful change that benefits all environmental emergencies.

Biodiversity Revisited is an initiative of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, in collaboration with ETH ZürichFuture EarthUniversity of Cambridge Conservation Research InstituteUniversity College London Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research and WWF. The initiative exists thanks to generous funding from the NOMIS Foundation, the MAVA Foundation and WWF International.

Thought piece: the power of gathering

An independent thought piece by Melanie Ryan, Senior Programme Manager at the Luc Hoffmann Institute

Humans have long come together to communicate, share, convey information, solve problems, tell stories and help each other. Some of our oldest messages are evident in cave paintings, with their ochre scenes of people hunting and gathered for food, warmth and cooperation. Gathering and communication are our oldest, intertwined tools in the human toolkit. There is something timeless in the ochre and candle-lit cave images.  

Today, we come together with immediacy – still to tell stories, share information, point each other in the direction of solutions, or interrogate our own existence. Like our ancestors, these ideas and information – whether etched in ochre or shared on social media, in conferences or journals – are not just there to decorate, they are there to illuminate and inspire action.

Now as much as ever, we cannot simply sketch out our relationship with other species and systems that we share this Earth with – we must alter it. Today’s truly unsustainable biodiversity loss rates reveal that some kind of tide needs to turn to ensure human wellbeing both for current and future generations. Recent news tells of urgency, emergency, collapse, extinction – mostly ours now. It is tempting to be overwhelmed by the noise and crisis language. We need to cut through the noise. 

Biodiversity Revisited, a collaborative initiative, is exploring what questions we should be asking in order to elicit solutions and pathways for a better future. By bringing diverse stakeholders together, the initiative aspires to examine the social construct of biodiversity and consider what it would take to move closer to a new, integrated agenda to sustain life on Earth. 

At the heart of Biodiversity Revisited is gathering – one of our oldest human strategies. Through an extended process of co-creation, reflection, new connections, critical and hard conversations – Biodiversity Revisited draws together people from a variety of disciplines, sectors and persuasions in order to move from fresh, interesting ideas to new choices and action. By catalysing new networks, new ways of thinking, and outputs that serve change,the goal is an ambitious new agenda for how we produce future knowledge. Why? Because we need a fundamental change in how we frame, develop and understand our conservation solutions for the future. 

Deliberate co-creation. Purposeful gathering. 

We don’t need to reinvent our oldest tools, but they must be targeted, sharp, meaningful and expertly designed. We must co-design thoughtfully – not haphazardly. Do we have the right foundations for solutions to the existential threat to human existence? If not, how should they change? We must act, but we must not be blinded by the noise – or by our egos. Would conservation rather be effective, or simply right? Those who work for sustainability and nature have as much responsibility as any other sector to ensure that our contribution to a new future is grounded, real, aware, innovative and informed by the best knowledge, diverse expertise and human talent we can draw on. This kind of interrogation is suited to both our deepest existential crisis as well as more immediate policy and practice.  

Gathering around ideas is not an end in itself. It is what comes next that matters: through the networks, platforms, research, policies and strategies that form to bring those ideas further. We must have the courage and wisdom to make way for both short and long-term change. In a time of global conversation, Biodiversity Revisited is more important than ever – taking a road less travelled to lay the groundwork for a fundamentally different 2030 or 2050, rather than tinkering around the edges. Let us sketch in ochre and send a message to generations to come that we seized our chance to get it right. 

During September 11-13 2019, the Biodiversity Revisited initiative convenes 70 thought leaders from around the world to begin the process of developing a new research agenda for biodiversity. This diverse group will spend three days interrogating what sorts of topics need to be included to ensure that we do a better job of conserving nature. We are proud to have been certified by Global South as “Carbon Conscious” event, having purchased carbon offsets to cover the emissions related to running the Biodiversity Revisited Symposium.

Melanie Ryan is a Senior Programme Manager at 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. 

The Biodiversity Revisited Symposium has been certified as Climate Conscious and 250 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions offsets have been purchased to offset the carbon emissions related to running this event. These offsets were invested in South Pole’s climate protection projects at Isangi Forest Conservation, DRC (301 701) and Mamize Nature Reserve Cookstoves, China (300 792).

Boston Biodiversity Talks: Jensen Montambault

Biodiversity Revisited is a collaborative thought leadership process to co-produce a new, integrated five-year research agenda to effectively sustain life on Earth. As part of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative, the Boston Biodiversity Talks took place in May 2019 at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, USA, to begin exploring fresh thinking around biodiversity.

Here, Jensen Montambault, Director at Science for Nature and People Partnership, highlights the importance of bringing diverse groups of people together to enact real-world change. She also reflects on whether conservationists should spend more time talking with non-scientists about biodiversity to help create more effective narratives around biodiversity.

Biodiversity Revisited is an initiative of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, in collaboration with ETH ZürichFuture EarthUniversity of Cambridge Conservation Research InstituteUniversity College London Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research and WWF. The initiative exists thanks to generous funding from the NOMIS Foundation, the MAVA Foundation and WWF International.



Thought piece: does extinction matter?

An independent thought piece by Dr Niki Rust, Communications Consultant 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 Communications Consultant 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.

Boston Biodiversity Talks: Randall Krantz

Biodiversity Revisited is a collaborative thought leadership process to co-produce a new, integrated five-year research agenda to effectively sustain life on Earth. As part of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative, the Boston Biodiversity Talks took place in May 2019 at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, USA, to begin exploring fresh thinking around biodiversity.

Here, Randall Krantz, Process Facilitator and Member at The Value Web, reflects on observing the signs of human-caused biodiversity loss and how nature systems are human systems (and vice versa). He then suggests how we can change course to benefit people and our environment.

Biodiversity Revisited is an initiative of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, in collaboration with ETH ZürichFuture EarthUniversity of Cambridge Conservation Research InstituteUniversity College London Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research and WWF. The initiative exists thanks to generous funding from the NOMIS Foundation, the MAVA Foundation and WWF International.

Thought piece: when is growth good enough?

An independent thought piece brought to you 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.

Boston Biodiversity Talks:
Cyrie Sendashonga

Biodiversity Revisited is a collaborative thought leadership process to co-produce a new, integrated five-year research agenda to effectively sustain life on Earth. As part of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative, the Boston Biodiversity Talks took place in May 2019 at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, USA, to begin exploring fresh thinking around biodiversity.

Here, Cyrie Sendashonga, Global Director of the Policy and Programme Group at the IUCN, shares her thoughts on how history has been repeating itself in biodiversity conservation, and why effective global governance must make sure it is an inclusive process for lasting success.

Biodiversity Revisited is an initiative of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, in collaboration with ETH ZürichFuture EarthUniversity of Cambridge Conservation Research InstituteUniversity College London Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research and WWF. The initiative exists thanks to generous funding from the NOMIS Foundation, the MAVA Foundation and WWF International.