By Kai 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.
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 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
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
|Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, and Table Mountain
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?