There's no going back

13 January 2011 | Article

Sue Mainka describes some shifts in focus that may be needed if we’re going to save the natural world.

As the International Year of Biodiversity comes to a close, we have seen the profile of nature and its importance for humanity reach new heights. Media, politicians, business people and the person in the street seem more aware of what we conservationists have been discussing for decades. Yet there remains a sense of frustration about inaction and uncertainty over the best way forward for biodiversity in the midst of global agendas that seem more concerned with national economies, peace and security and meeting increasing energy demands while avoiding the dangers of climate change.

IUCN stands firmly behind the idea that attention to biodiversity conservation will help to address these other, seemingly more pressing, issues. Economies that integrate full values of nature as well as full costs of nature’s exploitation will be stronger in the future. Healthy environments decrease the vulnerability of local people to change and thereby foster a world in which differences of opinion can be discussed and debated rather than settled through use of force. Biodiversity’s potential role as a supporter of new energy sources, such as algae farms for biofuels, represent new opportunities that only nature could provide. Using nature both to help store carbon as well as manage the impacts of emitted carbon provides a low cost alternative to more technologically intensive options such as carbon capture and storage. But what does all this mean for the future of conservation?

As conservationists, we have an implicit belief in the importance of nature for nature’s sake and a recognition that humanity is simply one member of a vast array of species that inhabit this planet. Over the past decade, we have become increasingly aware of the rest of biodiversity’s role in supporting ourselves and, in return, the impacts of unrestrained exploitation of that role now and in the future. We have opened discussions with economists and analyzed, in their terms, the value of biodiversity. We have established partnerships with bilateral development agencies that now recognize the role of biodiversity in sustainable development. We have engaged with the private sector and they now speak of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development as key elements of successful business models.

Underlying this work has been a vision of a natural world, and the means to achieve it, that may no longer be a realistic basis for future planning. We speak of ecosystem restoration yet in many places this is neither possible nor even desirable. We encourage new technologies in almost any field except that relating to manipulating nature. We seek integrated approaches that bring in all relevant stakeholders yet we speak a jargon that many don’t comprehend. The results of some of these disconnects are obvious—first and foremost, we have largely failed to achieve any of the 2010 biodiversity targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity. One is left to wonder, if 2010 had not been the International Year of Biodiversity would there have been half the attention on some of the debates that we have seen? Media coverage and political debates in 2011 and beyond will be very informative.

If we really want ‘A just world that values and conserves nature,’ what will need to change? I would suggest three key paradigms that need inclusion in our work—a focus on adaptability, shifting to rehabilitation of ecosystem function and integrating communication strategies that will motivate individuals to change.

Firstly, in conceiving our future vision we should think in terms of resilience to change and not in terms of a specific state or target. The one constant in recent years has been change—often sudden and sometimes cataclysmic. Biodiversity itself is not static but constantly in flux and we superimpose on those systems human-induced changes that are diverse and occurring at increasing rates. Therefore, we should plan in a way that focuses not on any specific vision of the future but rather on creating the ability to manage any of a variety of scenarios that might come to pass. And we should also manage for sudden change as opposed to gradual shifts in circumstances. The evidence is growing that future changes will be sudden as a result of exceeding tipping points and thresholds beyond which impacts could no longer be manageable.

Secondly, the concept of ecosystem restoration should evolve into ecosystem function restoration whereby we develop understanding of what functions any landscape has provided and then work to re-establish the necessary processes for those functions. Climate change, urbanization and water scarcity will all affect whether or not an ecosystem as we may have known it could possibly revert to what it was.

Finally, we must fi nd the means by which to change people’s choices and behaviour so that we all take responsibility for conserving the environment upon which we depend. It’s not enough to talk about the importance of biodiversity. Many studies have shown that this simply won’t change the behaviour of people. Advertising agencies and psychologists already know many of the techniques we need. We must work to make biodiversity conservation the ‘social norm’ and not the purview of an elite group of people. Our public outreach must emphasize what can be done and how valuable the results can be rather than focusing on dire situations and how bad things will get if we don’t act. How can we integrate wellused techniques in other sectors and use them to our own advantage? It will mean bringing the communications professionals with these skills into conservation. It may also mean shifting scarce funds from activities in support of particular conservation action in the field to communication programmes aimed at a much more basic awareness among society. Without it we cannot create a global community of environmental stewards.

Our goal remains the same—conserving biodiversity for today and tomorrow and for ourselves as well as future generations. But the way to get there needs to change. We need to be ready for uncertainty and change. We need to accept that biodiversity conservation for the future will not be about creating nature as it might have been but must endeavour to create as diverse and adaptable a world as possible to keep our options open. We need to embrace the skills and techniques of professional persuasion experts to expand the global conservation community to include everyone.

Dr Sue Mainka is Head of Science and Learning at IUCN.