Last year a FiSch working group that I led published a paper entitled “Beyond ecosystem services: valuing the invaluable”, which we hope will be part of a trend towards more transparent approaches to environmental policy. So we were excited when a paper appeared last month that echoes our primary concerns – coming from a much more prestigious organisation.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was founded in 2012. It currently has 128 member states, as well as a large number of participating observers (NGOs, conventions, etc), and several thousand individual stakeholders, ranging from scientific experts to representatives of academic and research institutions, local communities and the private sector.

As its web site explains, IPBES’ “mission is to strengthen knowledge foundations for better policy through science, for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development.” This is a welcome aim, even if it bears the hallmarks of being written by committee. As a research ecologist and a Christian concerned about humankind’s poor performance in nurturing the whole creation, I’m pleased we now have IPBES. 

I was, however, a little disappointed when I first heard that this initiative, a kind of ecological version of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was enshrining the term “ecosystem services” in its name. It was uneasiness with the notion of ecosystems delivering services to humans that led to our FiSWES project, which has as its crowning achievement so far the publication of an article critiquing the ecosystem services framework and outlining an approach to assessing how a full range of stakeholders may appreciate particular natural places. In that article we argued that “ecosystem services” is not well defined – so liable to misunderstanding and misuse – and dangerously vague about who is served by ecosystems – so liable to result in further oppression of marginalised people.

Imagine my surprise when, a couple of weeks ago, an article appeared in the journal Science from an IPBES team laying out the initiative’s framework for assessing human interactions with the natural environment – and “ecosystem services” was no longer to be used as a term. In its place, this framework will be considering “nature’s contributions to people” (NCP). It was as if the IPCC might have declared that “climate change” was no longer a helpful term! More significant, however, is the fact that the IPBES team’s reasons for their change of terminology resonate strongly with the perspective of our FiSWES group. All human benefits from natural systems, they point out, are mediated through human culture, and indeed “nature” and “human” need not be taken as distinct categories. The new framework goes on to distinguish a “generalising perspective” from a “context-specific perspective”, which appears to be a scientific versus what we might call a pre-theoretical attitude and gives more space for the insights of local belief systems to be incorporated. It also reminds us that particular stakeholders can experience negatively what others perceive as positive “contributions”.

I and my colleagues are quietly pleased with what we see as an important move in a wise direction. Are we disappointed that this Science article doesn’t cite ours? I confess I am – but perhaps I should rejoice to think that our shared views may have come to the two teams independently.  Do we feel our work has been duplicated? Not at all – we remain, I think, healthily critical of elements of the new IPBES framework and intend to offer enrichment by publishing a comment om it. 

Most importantly for now, I’m pleased to know that the IPBES analyses and advisory work are set to proceed on the basis of a recognition that humans really are part of nature (part of creation, we’d say as Christians), that it’s not helpful to construe nature as “serving” us (Psalm 104 gives a wonderful picture of all kinds of creatures serving each other), and that humans are inherently cultural beings, our cultures always shaping how we experience other creatures (even when we simply eat them). On that last point hangs a whole theology, for culture, in a Reformational view, is our invaluable yet imperfect response to God’s word in creation, the context of salvation history, and ultimately the inheritance of Jesus Christ.

Richard Gunton
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Richard Gunton

Richard is the Director of Faith-in-Scholarship at Thinking Faith Network. He also teaches statistics at the University of Winchester. His current passions include Reformational philosophy, history of sciences, ordination (the statistical sort), and wildlife gardening. He worships, and occasionally preaches, at St Mary's Church in Portchester. [Views expressed here are his own.]