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Is preserving biodiversity compatible with achieving the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals? Judging by reactions to the most recent report on global biodiversity, the answer seems to depend on where one is coming from.

Last Sunday — for those who may not have noticed — was World Biodiversity Day. This is an annual event nominated by the United Nations, and intended to deepen awareness of the fact that human survival depends on safeguarding plant and animal life on Earth. This year's biological diversity day sought to capture this concept in its theme: 'Biodiversity is the life insurance of life itself'.

Those of a semantic frame of mind, however, should perhaps not inquire too closely about the meaning of this statement. After all, life insurance is usually used to refer to the money paid to an individual in the event of his or her death or injury. It is difficult to square this neatly with the concept that those who came up with the slogan were no doubt trying to convey: that a healthy biodiversity is essential for all inhabitants of the planet to lead a healthy life.

In itself, of course, the ambiguity in the slogan is not important. But it does reflect deeper — and much more significant — uncertainty over how we should think about biodiversity. In particular, it demonstrates a deep-rooted ambivalence about how we should link thoughts to actions in our efforts to protect and preserve the world that surrounds us.

Increasingly, those arguing for such action, whether by governments, corporations or individuals, are recognising the importance of placing it within an existing, more familiar, framework of decision-making. By describing biodiversity as 'life insurance', the hope — presumably — was that the idea of obtaining benefits by paying regular, relatively small, premiums would strike a chord with many people who might reject a more abstract message.

Sadly, however, there is no agreement on the nature of this framework. Which makes it difficult when attempting to reach an international consensus on policies in which the preservation of biodiversity is one important dimension — but far from the only one.

The biodiversity challenge

Such issues have been starkly highlighted by the latest report to emerge from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a global effort to establish the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems, as well as their contributions to meeting human needs (see Protecting biodiversity 'may clash with pursuit of MDGs').

Under the title Ecosystems and Human Well-Being, the report gives a graphic and convincing account of the importance of biodiversity for human welfare. It stresses, in particular, the essential role played by what are described as 'ecosystem services', not only through contributing to material livelihood and welfare, for example by providing food, water and traditional medicine, but also in other dimensions (such as a source of cultural inspiration and aesthetic pleasure).

The report repeats an increasingly familiar litany of warnings about the extent to which such services are currently under threat. It points out for example, that changes in biodiversity due to human activities "were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history". 

Not all is gloom and doom. The panel responsible for compiling the report admits that there are certain areas of the world in which, even if biodiversity loss is not being reversed, at least the rate at which such loss is increasing has been slowed down. Indeed, there is substantial evidence of such trends in the report for those looking at positive news about the potential gains from human intervention (even if they are given little attention in what are identified as the report's 'key messages').

But the overall message is a stark one. The "drivers of change" that cause biodiversity loss, it says, "are either steady, show no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity". Under four "plausible" future scenarios, such rates of change "are projected to continue, or to accelerate". 

The report says that an "unprecedented effort" is required even to meet the goal outlined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) of "significantly reducing" biodiversity loss by the year 2010.

Political realities

So far, so good. But what does all this mean in the world of international politics? Here we run yet again into the dilemma that there is, as yet, no simple language in which both the science of biodiversity loss, and social actions needed to stem this loss (that are also compatible with other social goals and priorities), can be comfortably discussed.

The most obvious example of this dilemma lies in the tension between the steps that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment says are essential for biodiversity to be adequately protected — particularly to meet the goals of the CBD — and the separate strategies that others say are just as necessary to achieve the social objective of reducing global poverty (for example, through the UN Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs).

The dilemma is clearly outlined in last week's report. This points out, for example, that building the infrastructure — such as roads and dams — needed to enable rural communities to escape chronic poverty can often have a negative impact on local biodiversity. And that "trade-offs" are therefore required between environmental and social goals (including achieving the MDGs).

Such a suggestion, however, has angered some of those working in the sustainable development field. They argue that the concept of 'trade-offs' is an out-dated way of thinking about the problem, implying as it does that those seeking to reduce poverty and those keen to protect natural biodiversity are, by definition, sitting in opposing camps.

Need for a broad vision

The real challenge, of course, is to produce a set of policy initiatives that embrace the two. In other words, we need to develop a way of thinking about biodiversity issues that does not frame them into a single dimension – conceived essentially as the 'health of the environment' – but is able to locate them in a social context in which rational decisions about what benefits both nature and society can be made.

As is being increasingly pointed out, achieving this goal will require the development of a set of analytical instruments able to produce the data on which such decisions can be made. This is the task that the field of 'environmental economics' has set itself. And despite some early setbacks, when crude efforts at placing a monetary value on environmental goods and services were legitimately ridiculed by environmentalists (and some economists), the field is growing in both legitimacy and impact.

But it also requires a little more humility and imagination on both sides than is frequently present in the exchanges between them. On the one hand, economists need to be more modest about the extent to which either reducing poverty or protecting biodiversity can be achieved through top-down political pressure, market incentives, and the massive injection of public funds. Each of these is essential, but also needs to be integrated into a broader vision of the effective levers of social action.

Conversely, those keen to defend the planet's biodiversity could often benefit from an equal amount of modesty in pushing their own claims to be the top political priority. It is one thing, for example, to emphasise that healthy societies require healthy ecosystems. But it is not the only one. And to argue that concern for the environment should top everything else reflects a brand of fundamentalism that can be dangerously blinkered.

Read more about biodiversity in SciDev.Net's biodiversity dossier.

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