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?


  1. I think I understand what you're saying here, but I chafe at the easy references to "the distinction between the science and the politics". At one level, I think this distinction only minimally exists, in that applied science is invariably political (e.g. it usually/always implicitly assumes who/what is "causal", how to characterize the past and present, the degree to which the status quo is seen as malleable, which models to include, etc.) For example, it isn't scientifically agreed upon as to whether "weak sustainability" (high levels of resource substitutability) or "strong sustainability" (low substitutability) is a more accurate view of reality, and usually one or the other is implicitly chosen (and this is usually weak sustainability in my experience). On one level, it's often a "political" decision in that people tend to belong to a certain "camp" and don't re-evaluate their assumptions each time it's discussed; on another level it's "political" because some people find the implications of one or other distasteful or--politically impractical. On yet another political level, there are people simply jockeying for their favored model, and the politics of rhetoric, personality, expert selection, etc. can come in.

    This is just one (incomplete and inartfully expressed) example of where the science and the politics aren't neatly separated. That said...

    It seems to me you're talking about a separation/distinction of the "explicit" politics--e.g., choosing who will participate, in what format, what points of views will be privileged and why; the discussion and results being to heavily influenced by argumentation and coalition building rather than contemplation and gradual synthesis; and perhaps chiefly, allowing concerns of how things will "play" to different audiences to play too big a role.

    The latter is, I think, severely dangerous, but like I said, I just chafe at the notion of the distinction between politics and science, when the distinction is often not that distinct. But what you are referring to seems to be indeed distinct and pernicious; perhaps a differentiation of terms is needed...?

    See also (and my comment at

    1. Thanks for your comments, Jahi. I'm not claiming that science and politics are distinct in practice, but rather that there was an unfortunate conflation in this case.

      The context here is one of discussing the conceptual framework that IPBES should adopt. In this context, three kinds of arguments enter.
      1. This representation of entities (e.g., nature, institutions) better represents our best understanding of human-nature interactions.
      2. This representation will offend/please key constituencies.
      3. This representation will privilege certain worldviews.
      The problem in Cape Town, in my opinion, was that these various arguments were conflated and strategically misrepresented. In particular, it seemed to me that several times individuals were effectively arguing 2 or 3, but representing it as a matter of 1.

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