diversitas conference

What I learnt from the Diversitas Conference, by Harry Biggs
October 25, 2009, 22:50
Filed under: Key topics

Diversitas, an ongoing science project of the International Council of Scientific Unions, has access to some of the most celebrated and thoughtful persons in the conservation and biodiversity field, acting, in my mind, as a sort of loose scholarly “United Nations of Biodiversity”. The meeting they ran in Cape Town had very wide country representation, especially from Europe and Africa. The three-day meeting had excellent plenaries (before morning tea) but then ran up to nine parallel sessions, and was overbusy. My impressions and opinions are below, for those interested in a short feedback. (Experiences of different attendees were likely diverse; these are my ideas alone; and not necessarily endorsed by my employer SANParks)

• Governance issues (esp. science-policy and science-management links) have become far more respectable in such fora, now filling much programme time. For instance, Anantha Duraiappah from Kenya gave a keynote entitled “Managing ecosystem services, institutions, property rights and scales”.
• Gretchen Daily (of ecosystem services and other fame) spoke of mainstreaming conservation “beyond parks, beyond charity, and beyond biodiversity”; while Pavan Sukhdev (a dynamic banker who has thrown his weight fully behind the Diversitas cause) spoke of getting beyond the point where biodiversity is now, merely a “luxury for the rich and a necessity for the poor”. He referred to the increasing use of the concept “ecological infrastructure” as conceptually similar to, say, constructed infrastructure in the traditional sense, and the imperative to invest in maintaining or rehabilitating this. Daily and others are working on the following useful representation of the different processes we have to make work together if we are to succeed. The right-hand part was referred to by others as “the (traditional) science part” and the left-hand part as the part to which we have mostly given too little attention, in attempting to achieve our overall goals:

Much of the meeting was understandably about the difficult field of biodiversity targets. Georgina Mace suggested three types of targets:
BLUE – absolute ecosystem tipping points e.g. rates of climate change too fast
GREEN – societal choices about the desired state e.g. no more bird extinctions
RED – situations we must avoid e.g. imminent coral reef collapse (in my view some overlap with BLUE)

• Sukhdev and many others spoke about TEEB (The economics of ecosystem services and biodiversity), which, although young and developing, promises to make major impacts in our field. See http://www.teebweb.org. Sukhdev pointed to sensible ways to deal complexity, feeling scientists often impeded progress because of what he called the “Popperian trap” of demanding ridiculous levels of proof sometimes even when it was absurd to do so, and when Rome was clearly burning. The ideas in the Precautionary Principle will have to be used, but in a more complexity-friendly way. In my opinion we will as a community have to reconcile these needs, and not only use Mode 1 Science. Importantly, he reflected the invariable TEEB finding that returns on investment for just about all ecosystem services make for very profitable business, suggesting that one day soon these may really take off. My conclusion – perhaps we are poised for major changes in thinking. In additional, many speakers referred to “bundles” of related services as more realistic than looking at one service e.g. carbon sequestration, in isolation – in the same way that multi-species models or interventions often radically change outcomes when compared to single-species ones.

• There was general agreement that we will not reach the 2010 biodiversity targets of the CBD (now also widely embedded elsewhere, for instance under one of the Millenium Development Goals), and Georgina Mace gave a very thoughtful outline of how we will have to modify these for the likely 2020 target to be discussed at the 2010 Conference of Parties.

• As in the case of the biodiversity targets, implementation of most of what we do is messy and requires persistence, experimentation and learning. Watching congresses like this over the last 15 years, I sense a trend in which I think conservation folk are moving further and further out of their traditional “protected area” security zone in an effort to deal with reality. This involves facing up to how poor the global biodiversity outlook is, and requires looking for and taking some encouragement from “patches of hope” – which do exist. I spoke to several people at the meeting who found some sessions entirely depressing – for instance the freshwater symposium session stressed that although “rehabilitation” had been done in several places worldwide according to “best practice” at the time, it seemed that there were almost no biodiversity gains other than aliens or weedy species. The conclusion was – “well if we hadn’t tried those interventions, we wouldn’t have even known they didn’t work” and of course there are now many further ideas which might work – this all underlining how complex, context-sensitive and messy our field really is, though there are likely to be some underlying simplicities we haven’t yet found, or helpful paradigms we are resistant to try. And it’s not only the understanding we (might) have wrong, but also (and perhaps often mainly) ways of deciding and implementing – see footnote. I think we must cultivate fortitude, even fun and humour, amongst ourselves, to help each other deal with this. A great function of such a meeting is for especially emergent professionals to see role models doing so. Tough though it is, those making progress are not morbid.

• Achim Steiner (now Exec Director UNEP) spent his keynote talking about how development and conservation have to, and can, find constructive mutuality. He is concerned that much of the renewed development drive is actually re-initiating old formulae which are not sustainable. At the meeting there was considerable emphasis on appropriate agro-biodiversity and dove-tailing of needs. He also feels that as a community we still see climate change (whatever we think about it) as a hindrance or competitive force to our agenda, rather than as an opportunity. At the meeting, much was made generally of not only brown (e.g. emissions control) and green carbon (e.g. retaining forests) but also blue carbon, or important oceanic mechanisms, and a new book with that name was released there.

• Diversitas have worked hard towards an IPBES (International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) akin to the successful IPCC model. We should all be watching this space closely, but not waiting till it materialises as an excuse to not get on with our own contributions.

• Urban ecology is becoming a big and important field, one with which many of us will need to engage more seriously and more continuously.

• Predictably, smaller and thought-to-be-less-charismatic components of biodiversity are gaining in precedence and the attention they are receiving, a trend irritating some I met on the floor some who claim these are functionally unimportant anyway. There were very spirited plenaries on parasites including their ecological meaning (Andy Dobson) and on below-ground biodiversity (George Brown – Brazil). My opinion is these issues will slowly find their natural position – likely considerably more prominent than before.

If you have got this far, I hope the summary was of some use or interest. If you want to know more about the meeting: http://www.diversitasconference.wordpress.com

Harry Biggs

Footnote: Although nothing to do with the congress, during the week it became known that Elinor Ostrom had won the Nobel Prize for Economics – she is “one of us” in the sense that she works in natural resource management (as a political scientist), Some commentators ascribe this somewhat surprising choice to the sea-change she might bring about with all the evidence she has assembled that communities can sometimes – remember how seldom we actually have proper success stories – effectively manage their resources (cf. the ‘rational selfish person paradigm’ that dominates mainstream economics). We can perhaps implement very differently, and it may even work!


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