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“.