Thought piece: revisiting biodiversity in a village of mixed perspectives

Photo by Lukas Cudimaier

An independent 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.