Is there really a “battle for the soul of biodiversity” going on at IPBES? UPDATED x 3

Carved demon

No.  But perhaps I should give some context to both question and answer…

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) describes itself as “the intergovernmental body which assesses the state of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services it provides to society, in response to requests from decision makers”.   Sounds a little dry, I agree, but in fact IPBES is the most exciting and innovative international environmental body to have emerged in recent years.  Exciting because its remit is specifically to assess how society is affecting global biodiversity in toto, but also its value to humans.  Innovative because it’s a broad church that is trying to bring together the knowledge and expertise of both natural and social scientists, practitioners, indigenous peoples, and stakeholders of all kinds. This broad approach is something which some other international bodies have not, traditionally, been so keen to adopt.

IPBES has its critics who see it as superfluous in that its mission overlaps too much with that of organisations such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ecosystem Services Partnership, and the United Nations Environment Programme.  However I certainly think that there’s room for such an organisation.  We need as many voices as possible shouting about how important these issues are, at all levels of society, from the work of local conservation volunteers and the People’s Walk for Wildlife upwards to the highest levels of international governance.  So I’m a supporter of what IPBES is trying to do; perhaps I’m biased but I was especially impressed by the fact that the first major output of IPBES was a badly needed Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production for which I acted as an expert peer reviewer over its two iterations.  I’ve written posts about this a couple of times – see for example this one.

In recent weeks, however, there’s been some reports of in-fighting within IPBES, and between IPBES and other organisations, that science journalists have seen as being a major war of ideas.  It culminated in Nature publishing a piece entitled “The battle for the soul of biodiversity“, backed up by an editorial suggesting that “the global body for biodiversity science and policy must heal rifts“.

The crux of the perceived disagreements centre on terminology and concepts as much as anything, and specifically the notion of ‘ecosystem services’ versus ‘nature’s contributions to people”.  These seem to me to be saying much the same thing using different words, and I have to say that I was shocked when I read those articles and wondered what the hell was going on: was IPBES really falling apart before it had even managed to firmly establish itself (remember it only launched in 2013)?  Or was this just journalistic hyperbole of the kind that serves no real purpose other than to increase sales and page views?

I have no inside track to IPBES’s workings so I kept an eye on developments.  I was delighted, therefore, to see the 19th September issue of Nature publish four letters from IPBES insiders and experts from other organisations.  All of these, plus the articles I linked to above, are open access.

The first letter is from Jasper Montana of Sheffield University pointing out that “ideas need time to mature” and that “debates are grist to the mill of innovation for environmental governance”.  In other words, IPBES is a young organisation and the sorts of terminology being used are far from mature: terms such as “ecosystem services” and “natural capital” are at most a few decades old.  Clearly there is an urgency in building governance systems that can effectively conserve biodiversity, but debates around the best terms to use will not hinder that process.

The second letter from Bernardo Strassburg in Brazil entitled “honour guidelines that reconcile world views” pointed out that IPBES’s own guide to such concepts notes that the ecosystem services approach is just one of several, all perfectly valid, ways of viewing the relationships between people and nature, and of seeing people as part of nature.

The next letter is from IPBES chair Sir Bob Watson assuring us that “squabbles don’t obscure the bigger picture” and that a diversity of opinions and ideas is one of IPBES’s strengths.  It’s worth noting here that the original model for IPBES was the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) which has in the past been criticised for not allowing a diversity of opinions among contributors to its reports.  You can’t please all the people all of the time, and clearly not Nature journalists….

Finally Rudolf de Groot, chair of the Ecosystem Services Partnership, plus colleagues Pavan Sukhdev & Mark Gough, argued that “sparring makes us strong” and write the most critical of the four letters, stating that they “strongly object to the tone and content” of the original article.  They assure us that the Ecosystem Services Partnership and IPBES are not in competition and that there is mutual respect for different opinions and concepts.  Furthermore “both organizations…stand united against biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation…. Irrespective of the terminology used, our community is undivided in our knowledge that we fundamentally depend on nature in countless ways.”

So there you have it.  The Nature article and editorial were, in my opinion and those of the letter writers, over the top, exaggerating debates and disagreements that, whilst certainly real, do not endanger IPBES nor its mission.  I urge you to read the original articles then the letters, and make up your own mind.  Comments welcome as always.

UPDATE 1:  Just after I tweeted this post the Natural Capital Coalition added it to the bottom of a tweet thread that they had started when the original articles were published.  I confess that I missed these first time round but the thread adds extra detail to why the articles were misleading.  Well worth reading – here’s the start of the thread:


UPDATE 2:  It seems Nature is happy to continue the exchange of views following the article; the current issue of the journal contains another letter (once again open access), this time from Jim Harris (Cranfield University) and Janne S. Kotiah (University of Jyväskylä, Finland) pointing out that “the debate around which framework to use to value biodiversity could stem from the relatively recent coining and adoption of the concept of nature’s contribution to people (NCP).  Google Scholar returns only 19 hits for NCP and nearly 100,000 for ecosystem services, mainly because the latter has been in use for much longer“.

They go on to say (as all the correspondents on this article have) that they see no reason why the two worldviews of NCP and ecosystem services are irreconcilable. NCP seems new and different because it’s unfamiliar jargon   All of this reminded me of one of my first posts on this blog – “Business and biodiversity: oil and water?” which documented an event that I attended in London called “Biodiversity & ecosystem services: new collaboration opportunities for academics with businesses” .  It’s worth quoting what I said with regard to jargon within the field:

“In the workshop I attended there was some discussion as to whether technical language such as “biodiversity”, “natural capital” and “ecosystem services” (which one contributor referred to as “eco-babble”) deters senior business managers from engaging with nature conservation. I pointed out that words and phrases such as “email”, “internet” and “world wide web” were not so very long ago similarly considered to be technical jargon but are now part of our every day language.”

I still stand by this: technical language is only a barrier to engagement if people do not take the time to understand the jargon.  And jargon can become everyday language very swiftly.

UPDATE 3: This issue rolls on and Nature is still allowing commentary.  Just before Christmas Jonathan Davies and Peter Stoett wrote on behalf of the authors of the biodiversity section of the newest Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) from UNEP  (due March 2019) that “Biodiversity loss is dire, don’t get distracted“.


17 thoughts on “Is there really a “battle for the soul of biodiversity” going on at IPBES? UPDATED x 3

  1. Matthew Holden

    I had the same sentiment reading these pieces. The philosophical arguments seem rather minor to me, and I don’t think they matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. I was really shocked by how all these pieces got framed as a major squabble. NCtoP/Ecosystem services and the general intrinsic value of biodiversity are all important concepts and debates to have (especially academically).

  2. spamletblog

    I’ve not had time to read the pieces, but I must say that my fear is that when the natural world starts to be described in consumer economics jargon, it is inviting decision makers to think it is just there to be consumed.

    Political ‘economists’, on seeing items like ‘Ecosystem Services’ added to their budgets, will, I am sure, be looking to cut them just as they do everything else. (Especially so with Trump telling the UN and other ‘globalizing’ influences to ‘go and mind their own businesses: or else…’).


    1. jeffollerton Post author

      I hear this sort of criticism a lot; George Monbiot makes similar arguments. It’s based on a misunderstanding of valuation of ecosystem services (ESs). Monetary valuation of such services is just one way to value them. There are others. Here’s a comparison: I “value” my wife and children, but I don’t attach money to that valuation. Likewise the ES concept allows such intangible valuations to be expressed, it doesn’t have to be about money.

      OK, in many cases the valuation _is_ done in terms of money. But that’s not the same as commodification, nor does it imply a “selling off” of nature. If you tell a company (a brewery for instance) that the wetlands and riverside vegetation and invertebrates that are helping to cleanse the fresh water that they are drawing from a local river, and saving them the £xx million cost of cleaning it themselves, they are not going to cut it from their budget. They will hopefully work with local conservation organisations, the EA, etc. and thus invest in the ability of the natural world to clean that water. If they don’t there’s a danger of increased costs for the company further down the line.

      I wrote about this a few years ago – check out:

      1. spamletblog

        Yes I do understand that, Jeff, but, in these days when it’s hard to get decision makers to read anything, and even harder to make them believe that conservation, and, increasingly, science in general, isn’t just a ‘liberal conspiracy against business and ‘free trade”, I don’t think they are going to look much further than the bottom line.

        That said: I don’t know what it really would take to make them take things seriously, when they ignore the huge costs of hurricane, flood, and fire damage, while still waiting in gleeful anticipation for the Arctic ocean to completely melt so they can enjoy the new trade routes and get at even more fossil fuels to make things worse.

        I can well imagine Trump saying that if the ‘ecosystem services’ aren’t up to the job of accommodating and mitigating the effects of our ‘growth’ then there isn’t much point in leaving room for them. This would follow logically from his own energy resources department deciding that as the global temperature is going to increase by ‘7F degrees’ by 2100, and going to electric cars in the US wouldn’t stop it, they don’t need Obama’s restrictions on gas guzzling vehicles any more!

        Even Monbiot (‘Mr I See No People’) goes on and on about reducing consumption, but won’t hear a word said about tackling the consumption equation from the numbers of consumers side!

        By far and away the easiest and quickest way to tackle most environmental problems is to reduce the numbers of people, but Monbiot has stuck to his demands that the whole world must completely change all its bad habits immediately: which simply will never happen. So for Monbiot we must simultaneously rewild our pitifully overcrowded island, while doing nothing to try and reverse the half million odd per year increase in our numbers–which began at the turn of the century (when population growth was about to go negative) when the ‘planning system’ was repurposed to ‘promote growth’ no matter what the damage.

        While our politicians are still hell bent on infinite growth no amount of talk about the value of the ecosystem is going to make any difference: any more than any other environmentalists’ ideas (‘sustainability’, ‘Agenda 21’, ‘Rio’, ‘Paris’, ‘Cairo’, ‘Kyoto’, ‘Year of the Soil’, etc.).

        And: while ‘democracies’ have all been captured by tribalist feuding political parties, it’s impossible to make the economic system changes without sweeping aside the politicians and the universal crony capitalism that goes with them.

        I really don’t have much hope for the rest of the planet till after we’ve wiped ourselves out, I’m afraid. A new biosphere will develop in the warmer wastelands we leave behind.


      2. jeffollerton Post author

        In what way is reducing the human population of the planet “far and away the easiest and quickest way to tackle most environmental problems”?! Are you suggesting that we have mass genocide? Who gets to decide who lives and dies?

        I agree, wholesale structural changes in our economy and political system are needed. However, although I’m sympathetic to it, I can’t share your pessimism. I’ve spent too much of my life feeling in despair about what we do to the planet and to each other, it’s exhausting. So I do what I can via education and research and outreach.

      3. spamletblog

        I’m surprised you don’t know about population dynamics and how it responds to education and economic conditions, Jeff. It’s rather a big subject to go into here, but, in general, people tend to have fewer children as their economic status improves and they have access to good female education and health services. That is why in most of the developed world you will read ‘economists” scare stories about ‘ageing populations’ and demands for more population growth even though they are already grossly overdeveloped and in true sustainability terms really need to be aiming for reductions as fast as possible to offset the massed starvation and migration etc. that will come around mid century (I fully expect) when world food supplies crash due to climate change, lack of fresh water, and soil loss (Year of the Soil estimated only 60 harvests’ worth of soil remaining, several years ago.).

        There have also been good examples of deliberate population reduction policies working more quickly than you would expect: Until recently, Iran was the outstanding example, but, unfortunately, it was so successful that the politicians chickened out and are now providing incentives for people to have more children! Politicians and economists simply will not allow anything that lowers their position on the ‘growth league tables’!

        ‘Growthist’ ‘economists’ and political pundits, unfortunately still spread scare stories about ‘forced sterilisations’ or ‘eugenics’, but one only has to look at the real world statistics to see that there is no need for any of that. Managing the decline with changes to the economic system is all that is needed: Our society did, indeed, work much better when I was a child and there were only half as many people in the world, and there were still enough unexplored places for dinosaurs still to be in existence somewhere!

        David Attenborough is probably the most well known person to associate with quotes along the theme that human population growth is the worst threat that the natural world faces (And he should know: he was the first person to show us an orang-utan on UK television, and now they are nearly extinct.). It is blindingly obvious, after all: nearly all the mammalian mass on the planet is us and our farmed animals.

        Attenborough is patron of Population Matters, who’s CEO is Robin Maynard, who I used to know from FoE, and who was, for some time, the BBC’s farming correspondent. He recently was reunited with fellow FoE leader, Tony Juniper, who is now with WWF, at the Walk for Wildlife, so, with luck, the ‘traditional’ environmental and nature organisations are, at long last, beginning to see the ‘elephant in the room’ of the population side of the equation, which they have refused to think about for decades, due to similar ‘gut reactions’ to the ones you yourself expressed at my suggestion. These reactions are particularly regrettable when you consider that the ‘population time-bomb’ was one of the leading concerns that spurred the formation of environment groups like FoE in the first place. FoE had a good population policy at the outset, but gradually dropped it, and, like CPRE, went on to waste most of their time fighting a continually losing battle against ‘planners’ that they can never win while population growth feeds development, and development feeds population growth in a deadly feedback loop that has wiped out most of out country’s wildlife since the 60s.

        I could go on and on with examples, but you will find plenty of good solid advice and up to date examples on Population Matters site, and I do recommend that you join in and encourage others to do the same. My pessimism isn’t really that–I’m just mentally projecting from a wide range of dire circumstances that are all plain to anyone who can bear to read about them. To survive, we have to reverse population growth, and we certainly can, if politicians, economists, and media scaremongers will allow it. That is why I gave up on FoE and CPRE decades ago, and started pushing on population and politics, where the problem really lies.

        Best wishes,

      4. jeffollerton Post author

        I’m familiar with these ideas Steve but I didn’t realise this was what you were referring to. Reducing population growth rate, via education, restricting numbers of children, etc., will certainly work but I wouldn’t describe it as either “quick” or “easy”! The effects of education on global population size will take generations to filter through to make a dent in the billions of people on the planet. Thanks for the link, I’ll take a look.

      5. spamletblog

        You may be surprised at how quickly things can change Jeff. It’s not just about improving health and education and personal wellbeing, in the countries that consume the most–overdeveloped ones like ours and the USA–population is governed by the people movements created by political/economic decisions on ‘economic growth’ and ‘planning’. People are drawn into the construction development hotspots by a positive feedback loop geared to rising property prices. This is particularly noticeable in the cases of Southern England, and the Los Angeles conurbation. Without barriers to the movement of people and speculative finance: there is nothing to do but wait for the bubbles to burst.

        The UK was set to begin reducing population by the turn of Y2K, but since then, the new accessions to the EU, combined with the ongoing construction boom facilitated by the reversal of the purpose of the ‘planning’ system, and the weddedness of all parties to the doctrine of perpetual ‘growth’, has been draining population from the EU and the rest of the world (in roughly equal portions) at rates that have gone to over 300,000 per year (net) on several occasions, and averaged over 200,000 per annum for a decade or more. This is both devastating our own natural capacities, and robbing the EU of its young, fertile, and economically productive population, such that several countries are in dire straits when they are left to look after increasingly aged and sick vestigial populations with few doctors and nurses remaining (Romania is perhaps the worst affected–or was last time I checked.).

        Thus for the UK, it was all too easy to reverse a population trend, but inertia in the system (particularly due to importing the fertile part of populations) is going to make it much harder to turn around. Last time I checked the Eurostats, the UK was projected to take *all* the net population growth for Europe this century (and that mostly in England), while most EU countries continue with declining populations (my figs are from before the refugee crisis, so will have changed, but I doubt if it will have been for the better for us, while our governments still insist on perpetual growth even after we have regained the ‘right to control our borders’ after leaving the EU.).

        Check out:

        From:  –%20population%20projections&lg=en

        [UK 64.8 in 2015:]

        EU pop to increase by 13.2 million by 2080;

        UK pop projected to be 85.1 million by 2080; (Germany to *fall* by 3 million.)

        UK pop 64.8 million in 2015.

        Thus UK pop increase projected = 20.3 million;

        Which is actually 7.1 million *more* than the growth for the whole of Europe because we increase as the others decrease.

        “Europop2013 projections indicate that the EU-28’s population will grow overall by 2.6 % between 2014 and 2080, with the number of inhabitants increasing by 13.2 million persons. The EU’s population is projected to peak around 2050, reaching 526 million persons, an increase of 18.7 million (or 3.7 %) compared with the situation in 2014. The size of the EU’s population is then projected to fall to reach a low of 519.8 million by 2075, after which a modest increase is projected through to 2080, when the EU-28’s population is projected to still be around 520 million persons (see Figure 1 and Table 1).”l

        “By 2080, Germany is likely to be the third largest EU Member State in population terms, behind the United Kingdom and France”

        “For almost half of the EU Member States, the projections for 2050 indicate that population numbers will be lower than in 2014, with Germany (74.7 million) and Poland (34.8 million) both recording decreases of more than 3 million inhabitants. By the end of the time horizon in 2080, Europop2013 projections indicate that the EU Member States with the largest populations will be the United Kingdom (85.1 million inhabitants), France (78.8 million), Germany (65.4 million), Italy (65.1 million) and Spain (47.6 million).”

        Note that Germany, France, Poland, and Spain are much bigger than us, making the UK–mostly England–by far and away the most crowded country bar the city states and small islands.

        None of this population growth in the UK was in the least bit necessary: it was all created by politicians wedded to the business case for infinite growth.

        Hope that all makes sense. (I might add that it’s all made far worse when ‘austerity’ culture is added to the mix. For example, we were toward the bottom of the league in number of hospital beds per head of population before all this started, but we’ve been steadily taking more away as the population soars!)



  3. naturalistoncall

    A long-time close friend and I have continuing passionate and sometimes quite loud discussions on which is the better whisky: Scotch or Irish. People who don’t know us often fear a fight might break out. But he buys me really good Irish to try to convince me – and I reciprocate. Resolution is highly unlikely any time soon.

    I read the original Nature article and wondered “what the hey?” Thanks for sharing some of the ‘backstory’. I forgot that publishers’ prime directive is to sell their publications – even for scientific ones. Unfortunately, misleading stories support the public’s misconception that “if the scientists can’t agree, there must not be a real problem”.

      1. naturalistoncall

        That’s a new one to me – as a USer, I am shockingly unfamiliar with too many whiskeys. I’ve tried Thai, Chinese, Japanese and mid-Eastern versions and found them wanting. I’ll see if I can find any Welsh whiskeys…here in St. Louis there are now a couple of importers who may have such a thing.

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