Biodiversity and the challenge of pluralism

Related GLP Member: Unai Pascual, Sandra Díaz, Sharachchandra Lele

Biodiversity is usually defined in a scientific and technical way, with a prominent focus on species. As a result, many conservation programmes focus on the protection of charismatic species, and on the creation of strictly protected areas, often thought of as wilderness or in a pristine or state. However, this scientific concept of biodiversity provides too thin a basis for biodiversity action because it leaves out the many different ways in which people know, value, depend on, and care for nature. 

A recent Perspective article in Nature Sustainability argues that this narrow definition of biodiversity makes a major contribution to the lack of progress in reversing the declining global trend in biodiversity.  The mismatch between the way nature is conceived and valued by the conservation movement and by ordinary people, including marginalized communities, is a source of confusion and conflict. The article, “Biodiversity and the challenge of pluralism”, provides a series of recommendations for biodiversity conservation science, policy and practice.

The article is written by an interdisciplinary team of world leading biodiversity scientists from economics, social and political science, geography and ecology. The paper calls for the idea of biodiversity to be opened up beyond the narrow and limited perspectives that currently dominate biodiversity science, the conservation movement, and policy at local, national and international levels. It argues that reconsideration of the use of the concept of biodiversity could address the multiple and multi-level drivers leading to the current nature crisis around the world. 

The authors explain the importance of recognizing all the different ways in which nature matters to people: not only the diversity of species, but the diversity of all life on Earth and the different relations between these forms of life, including people. Such a ‘pluralistic’ perspective could transform the acceptability of conservation measures, and transform conservation success.

The article also argues that a new approach to conservation science is needed, one that can capture the multiple values of biodiversity.  Such a pluralistic approach could build bridges among a broader set of nature-concerned citizens and challenge the idea that there is an inevitable clash between nature and human well-being.

A pluralistic approach that recognizes the needs and forms of knowledge of actors that have an interest in and are affected by conservation could address the long history of displacement in the name of biodiversity conservation. What is needed is a conservation approach that respects for the rights of marginalized communities, especially Indigenous people, whose traditional ecological knowledge and sustainable practices continue in many countries to be vital for the protection of biodiversity. 

Growing global inequality accompanies declining trends in nature. There is an urgent need to refine the explanations of the underlying causes of this coupled problem. The authors stress that this requires taking into account politics of power, strong vested interests, and responsibilities in order to identify who benefits from the destruction of biodiversity and how their harmful activities can be stopped. 

This new article in Nature Sustainability is designed to contribute to debate at the delayed next meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity, now been scheduled to take place in October 2021 in Kunming, China. The authors hope that their calls for pluralism will help inform the setting of biodiversity objectives, targets, and indicators for the next decades. 

According to Unai Pascual, Ikerbasque Professor at the Basque Centre for Climate Change, one of the authors of the article and currently co-chairing the Values Assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) “in order to address the causes and potential solutions about the declining trend of nature globally, biodiversity scientists, practitioners, and policy makers need to take into account the multiple perspectives and values people hold towards nature, even if they do not always align. Life on Earth is based on biodiversity and society perceives nature and thinks about nature’s values in many different ways, making human-nature relations incredibly diverse. It is time to take into account the very diverse ways nature matters to people and this should be urgently reflected in biodiversity science, policy and practice”.

One of the co-authors of the paper, Professor Georgina Mace of University College London, passed away before publication.  Georgina Mace was a fervent advocate of inclusive and interdisciplinary approaches to biodiversity science, and this article is a tribute to Georgina Mace’s life and tireless work in the field of biodiversity science.