Monday, December 9, 2013

Can IPBES Make Ecosystem Service Assessments Useful? Yes (from Nicoya)—with A Few Key Tweaks

by Kai M. A. Chan
Part of a series of posts about IPBES (the UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and an inside look at its processes.

I stare mesmerized out the airplane window at the verdant green sharp hills, sinuous rivers, smooth beaches and glimmering oceans of Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula. As I stare, my mind wanders to my friends and colleagues flying into Turkey for the second plenary of the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES; which I blogged about here and here). Again and again, my mind returns to a central point: can IPBES help policymakers and practitioners—like those I sat with over the last two days in a sweaty Costa Rican university classroom—make and justify wise decisions to protect this 'pura vida' landscape from the downsides of the pressures that encroach?

Costa Rica’s west coast from the air—so mesmerizing
I almost missed my opportunity for a photo.
One might imagine, as many do, that Costa Rica is a well-protected paradise. It is. But it too is subject to immense pressures from a variety of economic, social, and political forces, and it too is desperately seeking insight about the social-ecological changes that loom on the horizon, and what might be done to steer the nation on a continued trajectory toward sustainable prosperity.
Back to the central question of the promise of IPBES. I vividly replay Ann Bartuska relating her experience of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) as a policymaker. One morning some thousand-plus pages were plopped down on her desk. The next week, a colleague of hers involved in the MA called her and inquired how it was going to change the decisions that federal agencies were going to make. She didn’t have the faintest clue, and while she didn’t quite say this, I got the impression that she’s still wondering.

It’s not that the MA wasn’t tremendously useful—it was. It put some core ideas (like the concept of ecosystem services, ES) on the map, and on the radar screen of countless researchers, policymakers and practitioners. But because it was so pioneering, it was too static and too coarse to inform many particular decisions. If IPBES is to build significantly on that groundwork, it must significantly advance the practice and use of ES research.

New tourist developments in the Nicoya Peninsula may be the
reason we foreigners visit, but they are also sucking water from
other uses, causing saltwater intrusions, and displacing local
people from their customary cultural uses of the shoreline.
With ES research, there is a surprising gap between understanding of nature’s contributions to people, and how that understanding is being applied by policymakers, corporations, and NGOs. To cut to the chase, my argument here is that IPBES can significantly help close that gap in three ways.

In Costa Rica, as in many cases, what's needed is an understanding of how what matters to people would be affected by change. In the case of our brand new project in the Nicoya Peninsula, we are focusing on climate change and associated hydroecological changes, but we’re also considering new tourist developments and changing agricultural practices.

Best practice for ES research gets at this directly. Conceptually, it's actually very simple. The research should involve:
The vast expansion of sugar cane
plantations changes the landscape,
both hydrologically (through irrigation)
and socially.

•    Understanding how the relevant components or processes in nature ('ecological endpoints') are likely to change due to the change in question (call it X).
•    Understanding how social change associated with X might change access and demand for these things. (This is a relatively new point, which I and others have been pushing hard in recent years—e.g., here.)
•    How much the resulting changes in diverse ES (including the above changes in supply, access, demand) matter to people, ‘valuated’ in terms that lend themselves to be integrated into decision-making.

It's puzzling: although the first and third points are well-established best practice from over a decade ago, they are not being taken up in research (as Terre Satterfield and I show in manuscript being revised) or in policy or practice. Instead, ES research is mostly either about the biology (often not the change) or about the value of whole ecosystem components or processes (not the value of how they are likely to change). It’s less surprising that the newer second point is not being taken up.

Policymakers and practitioners are no better. Furthermore, the poor progress in research is connected to the apparent demand for simplistic ES assessments. Environmental assessments, for example, seem to pay lip service (at best) to the idea of ES, and almost never include ES impacts, e.g., to compare with other costs and benefits. From my experience with NGOs of all sizes, citizen groups, and government agencies at all levels (from municipal to international), it seems that the vast majority of demand for ES research does not clearly target ES change. Accordingly, the result is often simple assessments of standing stocks—often ES valuation without underlying basis in social or ecological change.

I never thought I'd say this, but I think there's a golden opportunity for an intergovernmental body (IPBES) to leverage large-scale change through simple interventions.

IPBES is a major new effort that is poised to undertake some extremely important work. And I've seen firsthand the passion, intellect, and savvy of those involved (reported here).

At the moment however, IPBES seems to be fueling the fire of current demand for superficial ES science. How? In three unintended ways. By (1) considering biophysical assessment only separate from valuation assessment; (2) being apparently silent on the need to characterize the social changes in demand and access; and (3) treating non-monetary and monetary valuation options as separate alternatives.
Local people used to use the beaches—for their own purposes,
some key to their cultural identity—where foreign tourists now
have obvious priority. Now the local presence is for the pleasure
of selling beach-side massages.

Regarding (3), non-monetary and monetary valuation metrics are not alternative methods for valuating the same things. Instead, there are some changes (or aspects of changes) that can and should be valuated in monetary terms, such as the material property damage associated with floods. While there are real economic effects, we cannot pretend that the resulting monetary values also capture the emotional upheaval of dislocation or the spiritual losses associated with certain cherished things.

It would take but small changes to the current proposed IPBES docs to provide specific guidance about how to do ES valuation (of biophysical and social changes) as outlined above. It basically involves turning (1)-(3) on their heads, explicitly calling for and guiding the characterization of biophysical and social change and their integration with valuation, and also providing guidance on the integration

I have seen how such guidance from IPBES could make a tremendous difference. Not through the assessments, but rather through the recommendations for how agencies and organizations ought to do assessments for their own purposes is exactly what these agencies and organizations most look to IPBES to provide.

An interdisciplinary group (just a portion of the FuturAgua team
assembled by Tim McDaniels) assembles to strategise. From left
to right, Douw Steyn, Jennifer Romero, Silja Hund, Mark Johnson,
Raffaele Vignola, Cam Webster, and Paige Olmsted.
In my mind’s eye, we fast-forward three years. Paige Olmsted and I, with the rest of our research team, are presenting just such an assessment of ES change in the Nicoya Peninsula to the regional government officials, and representatives of various stakeholder groups with whom we are cultivating budding relationships. It may be wishful thinking, but I can see their bright eyes and excited nods as they imagine a half-dozen ways they can take this information and change policy and practice.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sometimes Conservation Needs a Good Villain

Cathryn Clarke Murray, CHANS lab affiliate and Marine Science Officer at WWF Canada, recently posted a blog on the WWF website about her role in the Fishzilla incident in Vancouver last year. Read all about it here! 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Beautiful Wings, Bitter Tragedy

by Alejandra Echeverri

His wings are bluish-green, glistening in the sunlight. They have a black band in the middle. His abdomen is yellow. He is 20 cm in length, flying free in the rainforest canopies of New Guinea. He is the Queen Alexandra’s Wingspan, the largest butterfly on the planet. He is so beautiful that some are willing to pay US$10,000 for his wings[1]. And what do they do with them? Put them in a box, together with other wings of beautiful butterflies that come from all over the world to build up an eccentric collection of dead butterflies. My stomach turns at the thought, butterflies behind glass: beauty seen, beauty not felt … lifeless.[2]
Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing Camila Barrera Daza (2013)

For years, people all over the world have traded wildlife illegally. Their purpose is to meet consumer demands for trophies, exotic foods, decoration, traditional medicines and collections.[3] Wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar industry that threatens biodiversity and triggers ecological problems. For instance, one ecological consequence of wildlife trade is the cascading ecosystem-level effects of removing species[4]. Poaching tigers for their coats, for example, might drive them to extinction. Thus, if tigers become extinct, food chains will likely be severely altered because of the removal of a top predator. Wildlife trade also introduces invasive species. As an example, ornamental fish have been traded to meet the demands of aquarium hobbyists, but in some cases not all the fish in the market are sold. Many sellers release these unsold fish into aquatic habitats where they can potentially threaten the persistence of native species by outcompeting them[5].

Why is the story of butterflies an important example of wildlife trading? Illegal trade of butterflies has more demand than one might imagine, and it is linked to ecological problems such as the loss of pollination as well as social problems like drug trafficking and violence.

People often believe that collectors—particularly those collecting eccentric things, like butterflies—are few in number and spend lots of money maintaining their hobbies. But in fact there are many collectors from the United States, Germany, and Japan (where an estimated 1 in 10 males are serious collectors) interested in buying rare butterflies [6]. In her recent book ‘Winged obsession’, Jessica Speart showed that ‘illegal trafficking of butterflies brings around US$200 million a year to global economy’1. Moreover, harvesting and exploitation of butterflies has increased because they are now trendy and ‘used in greeting cards, paper weights and even jewelry’[7]. The illegal trade involves not just few butterflies, but many thousands!

So… What ecological and social problems are linked to the trade of butterflies? Among insects they are the second-most important pollinators globally[8]. Butterflies pollinate large, showy flowers, pink or purple in color and usually scented, such as hydrangeas or lilacs[9]. Thus, killing and trafficking them can lead to the loss of pollination as an ecosystem service in flower crops[10]. Butterflies are also at the base of food chains; a reduction of their populations would impact the populations of species that prey upon them, such as birds or bats. Moreover, each species of butterfly uses a specific plant or a group of plants for egg laying and larval development; therefore butterflies’ extinction can trigger a coextinction process between them and their host plants[11].

In addition to potential ecological and economic problems from butterflies’ removal, more complex social dynamics involving illegal activities arise from butterfly and wildlife trade. As a matter of fact, the primary actors involved in these activities are criminal syndicates, insurgency groups and terrorist groups4,[12]. In Latin America for example, there is evidence that the routes employed for trafficking drugs are the same as those employed for illicit wildlife and operated by the same criminal bands4. Thus, trafficking butterflies (as an example) may often be linked to violence, corruption and highly organized criminal groups (like the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia or the Italian Mafia)4. Thus, if someone buys a butterfly for a collection, they may be contributing to financing criminal bands that commit terrorist acts.

I know that this topic seems overly dramatic. Connecting butterflies trade with criminal violence? You may think this is too extreme. But the truth is, environmental problems are intertwined with social problems in one way or another. To finish, I want to share with you my ideas about how to deal with this problem:
  •    Raise awareness. Did you know the prevalence and significance of the butterfly trade before? Go tell your friends!
  •    Stop buying butterfly cards, bracelets, earrings, etc., and speak out whenever you see or hear  about it. We as consumers have the power to shape the market and reduce the pressures leading to illegal butterfly trade.
  •    Work to prohibit rare butterfly collections, perhaps by sending letters to politicians or starting  campaigns. In that way we can better prevent extinction of certain species-at-risk.

These are some I can come up with, but what do you think we should do? 

[1] Speart, J.  2011. Winged obsession: The pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler(First edition). Harper Collins Publishers. New York: USA.
[2] Modified from quote by Andrew Hawkes (artist).
[3] Rosen, G.E. & Smith, K.F. 2010.  Summarizing the evidence on the international trade in illegal wildlife. Ecohealth, 7: 24-32.
[4] Wyler, L.S. & Sheikh, P.A. 2008. CRS Report for Congress, International Illegal Trade in Wildlife: Threats and US Policy. Congressional Research Service.  The Library of Congress.
[5] Padilla, D.K. & Williams, S.L. 2004. Beyond ballast water: aquarium and ornamental trades as sources of invasive species in aquatic ecosystems. Front Ecol Environ, 2 (3): 131-138.
[6] Webster, D. 1997 (February 6th). The looting and smuggling and fencing and hoarding of impossibly precious, feathered and scaly wild things. The New York Times Magazine, 6: 26-33.
[7] Sriram, J. 2010 (October 10th). Illegal trade of butterflies. Darjeeling Times. Available at:
[8] Colleen, Z. 2011. Powerful pollinators. Maclean’s (Toronto), 124 (5): 7.
[9] Willmer, P. 1953. Pollination and floral ecology. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press. 778 p.
[10] Losey, J.E. & Vaughan, M. The economic value of ecological services provided by insects. Bioscience, 56(4): 311-322.
[11] Koh, L.P., Dunn, R.R., Sodhi, N.S., Colwell, R.K., Proctor, H.C. & Smith, V.C. Species Coextinctions and the Biodiversity Crisis. 2004. Science, 305(1632-1634).
[12] Zimmerman, M.E. 2003. Black Market for Wildlife: Combating Transnational Organized Crime in the Illegal Wildlife Trade. Vand. J. Transnat'l L., 36: 1657.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Who is Conservation For?

This is the question posed by Paul Voosen, senior science writer with the Chronicle for Higher Education, in his piece published online earlier this week that addresses an ongoing discussion in the conservation world. Paul visited the CHANS Lab group this summer while researching this article, and has a follow up blog post that includes some excerpts from his interview with Kai that addresses a couple of neat ideas that were not discussed in great detail in the larger article. Let us know what you think! 

Monday, October 28, 2013

CHANS lab well represented at North Pacific Marine Science meeting

I have been attending meetings of the North Pacific Marine Science Organization (PICES) for over 10 years. The week-long meetings have always been the definitive place to hear about cutting edge physical and biological oceanographic studies of the North Pacific, and the influence of these physical and lower-trophic level effects on important marine species including marine mammals, birds, and commercial fishes.

However in recent years, thanks to the objectives of the overarching FUTURE (Forecasting and Understanding Trends, Uncertainty and Responses to North Pacific Marine Ecosystems) program and its focus on engagement, the PICES community has successfully broadened the types of science represented. It now includes a substantive human components section, as well as quality science on how multiple impacts may influence coastal communities, and the latest approaches to ocean monitoring. All told, the meeting now presents a stimulating, vertically integrated buffet of science from physical oceanography all the way up to human values.

At this year's meeting, held in Nanaimo, BC, CHANS lab was well represented in a number of these themes. I was pleased to have an opportunity to give a plenary talk on the opening day of the conference describing some key aspects of my thesis work related to model uncertainty. Kai's talks were the highlight of the human dimensions session, where he described our British Columbia Coastal Ecosystem Services project, and his work with NCEAS on integrating cultural values into decision making. The value of expert knowledge was addressed by our associate Stephen Ban, who explored the use of a Bayesian Belief Network to assess climate change impacts on the Great Barrier Reef. Our lab was also well represented in the cumulative impacts session, with post-doc Cathryn Clarke Murray doing a bang-up job on a method for assessing direct and indirect risk from human activities (she was awarded best presentation in the Marine Environmental Quality Sessions!), and by former post-doc Rebecca Martone (now at Center for Ocean Solutions) presenting some critical work on ground-truthing predictive models of cumulative impacts.

All in all, it was a great week for getting some of the cutting-edge work underway here at CHANS lab out there, and for us to get a taste of what is going on elsewhere around the North Pacific. You can search for our abstracts (or browse the entire abstract book!) here. Who knows - you might find the science as interesting as we do, and join us at the next annual meeting!

Edward Gregr

Friday, October 25, 2013

Dirt, bugs, trees, me

When I was little, my parents were frequently shooing my sister and me outside to play with the neighbor’s kids. For hours we’d roam the woods and fields, build tree forts, explore the stream and catch frogs and bugs. Now I’m the age when I mull over how I’d like to raise my possible future children. Based on my childhood and what I’ve learned, I want my (hypothetical) kids to get muddy, help me garden, and play in forests and fields. I look forward to accompanying them as they experience the delight and wonder that the natural world can evoke. In general, getting dirt under my fingernails and spending time outdoors, away from traffic and urban hustle, makes me feel more alive, calm and resilient. I know what it feels like to crave quiet, green spaces after accidents and stressful life experiences. Poets, philosophers, psychologists and I (!) have long recognized the therapeutic benefits of nature for physical and emotional health. Some of these benefits from nature turn out to be measurable, but many of the harder to measure benefits have not been given the attention they deserve.

Quality time with sunflowers when I was a kid
A freshly minted multidisciplinary review (yes, I am a co-author) is a guide to the myriad intangible benefits to human well-being from knowing, perceiving, interacting and living with nature. Published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, this synthesis is, to our knowledge, the most comprehensive overview of this topic. In our paper entitled Humans and Nature: How Knowing and Experiencing Nature Affect Well-Being, we review literature on the intangible benefits from nature to our physical health, mental health, spirituality, certainty/sense of control, learning/capabilities, inspiration and fulfillment of imagination, sense of place, identity/autonomy, connectedness/belonging, and subjective overall well-being.

Intuitively, I recognize that nature matters in dimensions that can not be easily measured. This synthesis documents many of these sometimes abstract but critical dimensions. My co-authors and I recognize that nature has a darker side (diseases, parasites, insect infestations, etc.), but our holistic review of over 200 peer-reviewed articles from a variety of academic fields marshals substantial evidence that thinking about and being in ecosystems, both “wilder” and more domestic ones, is good for our brains, bodies and psyches. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Arm-chair environmentalism, science communication, and why I hate Twitter

by Jordan Tam

"@LucidStream, Jordan you are a fool"

"Well you're an idiot!" was my sophisticated gut reaction to the random Twitter user's response to my second-ever tweet.

When UBC President Stephen Toope said of Twitter:
I dislike everything about it. I think that the notion of the immediate reaction to something without any reflection, the idea that you can say anything that matters in the limited number of characters you’re given, and that you have to do it immediately, and everyone will respond immediately with no reflection, I think it’s the worst of our society...
I thought, 'Yes. This is bang-on'. My skepticism of Twitter and its ability to foster meaningful dialogue began well before I started @LucidStream two days ago, and Toope's assessment echoed in my head the moment the first replies to my tweet sounded their arrival.

For what was I being accused of being a fool so directly (but distantly)? It was this tweet:

Which was, what I perceived, a justified salvo fired at the article's ("The Ocean in Broken" in the Newcastle Herald) careless language and phrasing, and overemphasis on a single line of anecdotal evidence to fuel its conclusions. The article describes yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen's sea voyages and is currently enjoying the rounds on Facebook, and so I thought it warranted a tweet. Ironically, I soon realized my most popular tweet had a typo; the result of trying to squeeze more meaning into the 140 characters alotted.

In my tweet I wanted to question the contradictions, like: "...the sea was dead... There was nothing to catch", while in preceding lines, (bags of) fish that were gifted to the yacht's crew by a large fishing vessel are described as  "...good, big fish, of all kinds. Some were fresh, but others had obviously been in the sun for a while". I wanted to raise a nuanced point about the potential harm of drawing derision and reinforcing stereotypes of environmentalists by using hyperbolic and vague language such as "the ocean is broken" to describe multitudinous marine issues. All of the ocean is broken?! How are we still alive?! I wanted to emphasize that even if you care about something, like the ocean, a lot, one boat trip is insufficient evidence to claim that the ocean is dead. And I had 116 characters to do it because the rest was taken up by a web address.

It didn't work so well.

Nonetheless there are three brief lessons from my neophyte interactions with the Twitterarti:

1) Language (precision) is key
'Broken ocean' aside, I believed that stating up front that "Some important marine issue [were] identified" by the article would insulate me from the public tirade accusing me essentially of hating the Earth. Nope. Admittedly, this is probably because I shouldn't have used such an affectively loaded term like "tear-jerker", but it's genuinely how I felt. Also, leaving a typo is just low-hanging fruit for the frothy-mouthed masses hunting for blood as vengance for hurt feelings. Oops did I say I should avoid loaded language?

2) Twitter is not the venue for (expressing) critical thinking
I like to think that, in general, my comrades who are concerned about environmental issues are careful and critical thinkers who have processed the evidence and have an appreciation for nuance. But I think Twitter has a tendency to corrupt the frontal lobes. It's clear that thinking twice before going on the attack is not a prerequisite for publishing on social media. Hence this post (not to mention the beautiful limitless room for me to ramble).

3) Not all tweets are created equal
It was a mystery to me, until this morning, why my other tweets are communing with tumbleweeds, while the 'ocean' tweet was drowning in a sea of hatred. When you have no followers, it's a case of real estate: location, location, location. Going back to the article I discovered my tweet among the top of the comments section in the Newcastle Herald. Ah-hah.I may have also temporarily closed the cover on my "Shit-Disturber's Dictionary" for subsequent tweets.

In the end, I still hate Twitter. But it is kind of addictive like a videogame, the exposure is surprising, and the (personal) benefits...well, that's to be seen.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Two (SNAPpy) New Routes through the Valley of Death

Ever since I started the life-altering Leopold Leadership training with twenty over-achieving new friends, I’ve been keenly aware of one thing: the vast majority of science for sustainability is doomed to be relegated to the dusty virtual shelves of the primary literature and—for a select few—short-lived local applications....

(Read more on the Leopold 3.0 Blog.)

Monday, October 14, 2013

PICES 2013 and More Impediments to Science-Policy Progress

By Kai Chan

The 2013 meeting of the North Pacific Marine Science Organization (PICES) squarely targets international collaboration and making science useful for decision-making, but right from the get-go, the meeting has been a story about colossal government impediments to the nation-to-nation and science-policy interfaces.

First is the story of the absences on account of the US government shutdown. Whole sessions of this scientific conference are in tremendous flux, as US government presenters are both barred from attending, and from communicating via their work emails (e.g., about their travel/conference plans and changes to those). In this case, blame cannot be laid on the executive branch (the White House and federal agencies) alone, and where blame lies is beyond the scope of this blog.

Second is the very different story of Canadian government attendees. Ian Perry of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) kicked off the meeting with a wide-ranging and eloquent talk, including much that pertains to the future of the FUTURE program at PICES (Forecasting and Understanding Trends, Uncertainty and Responses of North Pacific Marine Ecosystems). And yet, at the same time, there are reports of numerous federal government employees being denied the opportunity to present or attend at the PICES meeting—including those working just minutes away at the Pacific Biological Station of DFO.

Clearly, the Canadian problem is not one of insufficient resources, for folks who could ride their bicycles to the meeting but were prevented from doing so. Instead, the problem lies in the bureaucratic process by which federal government employees wishing to attend a science meeting must apply six months in advance to a non-transparent process of approval.

South of the US-Canada border and north of it, we have different underlying issues and different bureaucratic processes by which obstacles are raised, but both nations have erected barriers to the productive communication and collaboration of Americans with Canadians and of scientists with policymakers.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

IPBES: Intense Politics of Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services

Part of a series of posts about IPBES (the UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and an inside look at its processes.
My title renaming of IPBES (from the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services to Intense Politics of…) reflects the single biggest lesson from my trip to Cape Town for the Expert Workshop on the Conceptual Framework (for an intro to IPBES and this workshop, see my previous blog post). That’s not necessarily bad: it can be fun (like a chess game, as Unai Pascual said), and good work is possible (I think).
My home for more than two days looked like this: 
Vancouver via London to Cape Town = a long way

Politics entered from the get-go, in terms of who was in the room. I was surprised throughout the nomination process for the Multidisciplinary Expert Panel (MEP) that there were to be only five representatives from all of “Western Europe and Other States”, a group that includes Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada (there are also five representatives from Eastern European States). No one that I spoke to at the Conceptual Framework meeting could see much sense in this distribution, given the preponderance of expertise in that Western Europe and Other States group. Absolutely it makes sense to work towards a certain equity, but the current configuration seems to go way too far. For the Conceptual Framework (CF) experts (different from the MEP),
Lion's Head, from V&A Waterfront, Cape Town
the distribution followed expertise more

closely, but between the CF experts, the MEP, and the Bureau members, there were notable absences. E.g., not present were Hal Mooney and Walt Reid (prominent leaders of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment), Dolf DeGroot and Bob Costanza (of the Ecosystem Services Partnership and key early work on ecosystem services), and Gretchen Daily, Steve Polasky, Taylor Ricketts, Peter Kareiva, Heather Tallis, Anne Guerry, etc. (of the Natural Capital Project). Maybe they declined to be nominated, but I found their absence interesting, even though there were lots of great people present. No doubt the composition of participants influenced the direction of the conversation, in many ways.
The figure produced by the Paris (precursor) workshop on 
the conceptual framework

The aforementioned politics introduces a certain tyranny of the minority whereby minority viewpoints are overrepresented and still benefit from the political shield/shelter of being minority views globally. E.g., “nature's gifts” and “nature’s favours” both gained entry into the CF figure in the edits following Figure 1 from the early 2013 Paris precursor workshop (see below, on the left, under “Nature’s Benefits …”). Both were intended as a parallel but more palatable alternative to ecosystem services--a concept that was deeply problematized due largely to its capitalist associations and which might have been excluded from the figure entirely, were it not entrenched in the name of IPBES. But Nature’s gifts and favours? Where was the problematizing of that? To me, 'gifts' connotes much more intentionality than does ‘services’. Such imagined intention of nature is quaint and perhaps also very useful in some contexts, but questionable as a more appropriate representation of reality. As if nature really intends to 'gift' most of what humanity derives from it. BUT of course not all of the diagram will speak to everyone, nor could it. The very purpose of the diagram is that it should represent multiple ways of knowing, not just one (obviously difficult in just one figure). Thus, even though I find it strange that the alternative to 'service' (critiqued in part because of the assumption that nature does what it does for us) is a pair of terms that strike me as even more problematic that way, I'm thrilled that the figure includes multiple metaphors for human-nature relationships (as colleagues and I called for here).
The draft figure circulated prior to the Cape Town workshop
Note that there’s no blame to any individual here: the point is that individuals are intentionally representing the perceived interests of others. It’s politics, implicitly infiltrating into the science: the figure in question was supposed to represent our best understanding of how social-ecological systems work, highlighting the bits pertinent to IPBES. I won’t go on about other telltale signs of the excessive influence of politics in this figure—you can have fun with that yourself. The point here is that it isn’t necessarily wrong for politics to enter in this way: if the figure is to be at all useful, it must speak to the way that people view the world, so this level of politics is essential.

Politics entered at a personal scale, too. In terms of the work we did in Cape Town, it really  
It mattered who found their way to Cape Town, 
and who didn't
mattered to be in the right room. And if you had a good idea, you knew or quickly discovered that you wouldn’t have the time to champion it solo, so you’d better work the room to find or build supporters in others. Most of this was tasteful, and simply a product of the apparent necessity; some of it made my mouth pucker.
Politics—some obvious and some buried well beneath the surface—entered prominently in terms of what appeared at the center of the diagram. We literally spent hours on this, with various parties considering how it would be viewed by various constituents. Some attendees were concerned that the diagram could never fly with “Institutions, decisions, and drivers” in the centre (as in the Paris figure), and preferred to keep them off to the side as in the pre-workshop figure, because a central role for institutions, etc., de-emphasized nature, nature’s contributions, and human quality of life. There’s no right answer here, obviously, but for me (and many others) a central role for institutions, decisions, and actions allowed the appropriate depiction of these things affecting everything else. And for me, misrepresenting that key dynamic would be letting politics have too strong a hold on the science. Others differ, and they’re entitled to that.
On a personal note, I wish that I’d had the patience and evenhandedness in Cape Town to express my opinions as I have above. In the meeting itself, I got caught up in the discussion, where political considerations and science were being conflated and confused, and I argued forcefully, inadvertently taking a centre role in a major dispute. The jetlag that left me near-sleepless surely contributed, but next time I’ll strive to keep a firm grasp on the distinction between the science and the politics.
Berta Martín-López and Unai Pascual at Kirstenbosch
Despite the politics, it seems possible to achieve useful gains. As I mentioned earlier, it seemed essential that IPBES provide guidance about values and valuation. As I’ve said countless times in talks with a slide titled “ES = E$?”, ecosystem services have been conflated with the valuation and commodification of ecosystems and ecosystem goods and services. And valuation is what decision-makers and practitioners seem to ask for when they think about ecosystem services. But too many think about valuation in a dangerously simplistic way, which is why IPBES has such an important role to play. I made this point in the CF workshop, and it was heard and embraced. As a consequence, I had an opportunity to work with a super group of folks, including Unai Pascual and Berta Martín-López (pictured below) on guidance for and from IPBES. This work, and the day I spent with Unai and Berta at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden were the highlights of my trip.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, and Table Mountain

Will I continue to play a role in IPBES? That depends partly on whether they’ll invite me back! Which is by no means a certainty. ;) But it also depends on what comes of our efforts, how much survives through the even-more political processes at the MEP and Bureau. And the fate there can be understood as an indication of what’s possible and how well I played the game—so it seems like an appropriate deciding factor for future engagement.
What does this all mean for IPBES? With it’s own unique mixing of political considerations into the process and outcomes of scientific assessment, it’s going to be a trying but potentially fruitful process. To be frank, I am not hugely optimistic, but I am tentatively hopeful. With this window into the most recent IPBES workshop plus your own knowledge and experiences, what do you think?