Saturday, August 24, 2013

“You’re flying across the world for a what? A conceptual framework? A diagram?”


These are the words that echo in my head as I sit for my 19th hour (only about nine left to go!), now flying over Europe en route to Cape Town for the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) expert workshop on the conceptual framework. IPBES is a major UN-funded effort to perform assessments and initiate capacity building for biodiversity and ecosystem services. But there’s basically no place on land further from Vancouver, so I should be grateful it’s only 28 hours.
These words of my wife’s were actually never uttered. I feel certain she would have said them, if I’d explained the meeting in the terms it describes itself. A workshop to set up a conceptual framework for an international bureaucratic ‘platform’ that no regular person has heard of?
Put that way, the trip is tricky to justify, especially since I had to miss my daughter’s third birthday. So instead, I said, “It’s a meeting for a new global process for biodiversity and ecosystem services, like the IPCC for climate change,” (at least some lay people have heard of the IPCC--the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which coordinates prominent scientific assessments), “to basically set the conceptual grounding for what it does.” Though not explicitly, what I effectively said was, “You know how they say that whoever controls the process controls the outcome? Well, whoever controls the conceptual basis on which the process sits controls the process and the perceptions.”
Well, maybe. I guess we’ll see, won’t we?
But even though it’s unlikely that the conceptual framework will control the process, there is real reason to believe that a poor conceptual framework could sink an effort like IPBES, and a sound conceptual basis might just enable an idea whose time has come to really take root.
 
Take as a model the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s (MA) famous/infamous Figure A above. This figure has been viewed millions of times; it is shown at least once in almost every meeting or session on ecosystem services, and by now these are occurring several times a day somewhere in the world. If I had a dime for every time it was shown, I’d be rich. And I’d gladly spend a chunk of those riches to get people to stop showing this figure and to show a different one instead.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot right about this figure. It successfully made the point that there are lots of things associated with ecosystems that contribute in different but important ways to human well-being. Quite possibly, it was this figure that put the idea of ecosystem services on the map, so to speak, in government agencies, corporations, and non-profit organizations. And that’s a tremendous achievement.
But the figure is also problematic in multiple important ways. First, it suggests a reality to the four ‘master’ classes of ecosystem services that just can’t be supported. Just as Mollie Chapman wrote here [link to blog post] about Sarah Klain’s work, and as Terre Satterfield, Josh Goldstein and I have argued in conceptual terms here, cultural services cannot be understood as separate from the other categories: often these cultural benefits come not from biodiversity itself, but from people’s engagement with other ecosystem services (particularly provisioning ones, as through fishing and farming). But the MA figure seems to suggest that we can understand and even manage cultural services separately from the others; and we have argued that this misunderstanding has held up the engagement of ecosystem services with cultural values for far too long (here and here).
Second, it makes empirical claims that appear to have no support. The thickness and color of the arrows conveys critically important information about the magnitude of the contribution to well-being and how viable it is for socioeconomic factors to change that. I’ve never found any evidence in support of the width and shading, and my own experience stands in stark contrast: e.g., we and others have evidence that the cultural benefits associated with ecosystems are critically important to people. Meanwhile, the MA figure appears to justify the decision not to bother with those tricky cultural dimensions.
For all that the MA did right with this figure, which provided a conceptual framework of sorts for the MA and ecosystem services generally, there were clearly things it did wrong.
Obviously a conceptual framework cannot be all things to all people. The conceptual framework draft says that the framework is a model of how social-ecological systems work. Of course, that doesn’t pin it down at all: since social-ecological systems are monstrously complex, there are innumerable ways to represent their workings more simply. Specifying an audience and a purpose pins it down more. So what should it strive to be, to whom?
In my mind, there are two kinds of audiences for the conceptual framework: there are the folks that we hope will participate in IPBES, contributing understanding about social-ecological systems (natural and social scientists), and the folks we hope will be consumers of the scientific understanding that IPBES will consolidate (policymakers and practitioners). For the former (scientists), we’re conveying how we’re choosing to see SES for the purposes of compiling science and informing decision-making. For the latter (decision-makers), we’re conveying how we’d like them to see the world in a way that clarifies what we have to offer in relation to what they can do with it (the decisions they face).
I’m going to save most of my thoughts for after the meeting, after my best efforts to help make this framework useful. For the time being, I’ll make just one observation about the current draft of the framework. Valuation is conspicuously absent from the figure. The absence is conspicuous because valuations are the first things that decision-makers look for when they hear about ecosystem services, and they make up an important part of virtually all scientific assessments of ecosystem services. We’ve argued elsewhere that valuation, while important, need not play such a central role (that ecosystem services assessments can inform decision-making without valuations as most people imagine them), but since they do play a central role, I figure they deserve a place in the conceptual framework diagram.
From my own perspective, misunderstandings of valuations are so common, both in the research and decision-maker communities, that setting the record straight about their role and meaning is essential.
I’ll report back in three days about what happens when a group of experts get together and try to make something that will both please everyone and serve as the first step towards an improved mechanism for integrating ecosystem services research into policy worldwide.

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