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2. Understanding, Acknowledging, Representing Environmental Emergency
II/ Naming, voicing

“What’s in a word?”:

The (natural) world according to the United Nations
Sylvie NAIL


Au cours des trois dernières décennies, la politisation des questions environnementales et l’élaboration de politiques à partir de la recherche ont rendu la situation plus complexe pour les chercheurs comme pour les décideurs. Cependant, en dépit d’un éventail d’instruments et de rapports sans précédent publiés sous la houlette des Nations unies afin de définir des perspectives propres à assurer le développement durable, les grandes ambitions se sont soldées par des actions insuffisantes pour faire face aux urgences. Quelles leçons en tirer ?

Cet article s’attache à clarifier les concepts qui définissent et régissent nos relations au monde naturel depuis le plus haut niveau des politiques internationales. Il examine le cadre d’intervention et analyse le périmètre et les implications des concepts courants que les scientifiques ont définis et que la politique internationale a intégrés : « services écosystémiques », « solutions fondées sur la nature » et « contributions de la nature aux humains » en particulier. Ceci contribue à la compréhension des choix opérés et de leurs limites, du couplage entre système écologique et système économique, et explique peut-être pourquoi il est difficile de percevoir des changements de fond dans les politiques. L’article se conclut sur une invitation à de nouvelles approches face à l’urgence.

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Texte intégral

The author would like to express her thanks to Sarah Pickard, to Camille Manfredi and to the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions on the first version of this article.

Nature embodies different concepts for different people, including biodiversity, ecosystems,
Mother Earth, systems of life and other analogous concepts (IPBES 10).


1The pervasive sense of a global environmental crisis and its multifarious manifestations have led to a particularly high number of international reports and fora over the last three decades which clearly reflect the need for evidence-based policy making. The documentation provides so much evidence of how international bodies (notably, the United Nations, the World Bank and the European Union) frame and institutionalise the natural world. In so doing, they legitimise and prioritise certain modes of intervention rather than others to protect the natural world.

2The assumptions made, the choices vindicated and the policies put forward by most UN member states to respond to environmental challenges at the dawn of the twenty-first century are complex. To bring valuable insights about these complexities, it is helpful to zoom out and analyse the concepts and frameworks, inextricably linked to cultural/ideological paradigms, that underlie what has come to be called the science-policy interface. This term refers to social processes which “encompass relations between scientists and other actors in the policy process”, which permit “exchanges, co-evolution, and joint construction of knowledge with the aim of enriching decision-making” (van den Hove 807).

3The article shows how nature is construed, how its protection is envisaged, for what benefits and with what limits at the highest level of international politics. The demonstration hinges on three parts: first, a summary of the process of institutionalisation of environmental issues and their main foci; second, an analysis of concepts discussed and chosen, in order to disclose underlying interpretations and priorities and, third, an assessment of values. The last part of the article reveals why precise knowledge and high ambitions have not translated into concrete action that is sufficient to respond to emergencies, and it opens the door to fresh perspectives.

1. Integrating environmental emergency into a framework

  • 1 In environmental historians’ terms, “the Anthropocene began when human actions became the main driv (...)

4Since the 1980s, environmental issues have risen to prominence as a domain of public policies worldwide, in response to growing concerns related to hazards and disruptions induced by human actions. Informed by research and egged on by environmentalists, the “risk society” (Beck) has endeavoured to decrease the threats that seem to have become the predominant by-product of industrial societies in the Anthropocene1. International organisations have identified the challenges thanks to research emanating increasingly from social sciences as well as from the more traditional natural sciences (Reid 916). They have specified the framework within which regulatory measures are enforced by defining administrative control and management systems, and delineated financial measures.

5Based on the principles of precaution, sustainability and the desirability of continued economic growth, the framework of sustainable development came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. As stated in the memorandum of the Stockholm Initiative on Global Security and Governance (22 April 1991):

The concept of sustainable development has been broadly accepted by governments, international organizations, and by a large community of non-governmental organizations. The challenge, of course, is to put it into practice. Individual nations should use the decade of the 1990s to put into effect policies aimed at sustainable development. This can only be achieved through a broad participatory process, involving all layers of societies, both in the public and private sectors. Openness, freedom of information and the full right to democratic participation is therefore a precondition for sustainable development. (Kunugi 115)

6Sustainable development was a political idea connected to the current of ecological economics, it became formalised in the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), i.e. the Earth Summit or Rio Conference (1992) in the following terms: “a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, according to the definition provided in the UN Brundtland Report (UN WCED 6). Sustainable development, entailing a balance between economic, social and environmental pillars (to which a cultural pillar and a governance component are sometimes added), was embraced by international organisations and soon found its way into mainstream thinking.

7During the 1992 world Earth Summit in Rio, the United Nations praised its record of diplomatic activity since 1990 (in the form of twelve major conferences) towards a solution to the “most pressing problems facing the world today” (UNCED), which include environmental protection, in the following terms:

This continuum of conferences represents a remarkable achievement for the United Nations system. Through the conference process the entire international community has come together to agree on shared values, on shared goals and on strategies to achieve them. This effort shows one of the United Nations system's greatest strengths: the ability to move from consciousness-raising to agenda-setting to agreement on action by Member States to follow-up on conference commitments and to effective assistance for the countries that need help in realizing their commitments (UNCED).

8A lot more conferences have taken place since then, and the first two decades of the twenty-first century have brought an unprecedented array of instruments and reports produced both internationally and nationally in the UN Member States, to define objectives and methods aimed at ensuring sustainable development.

9Thus, sustainable development has become the core objective of environmental fora after the Rio Earth Summit (1992), at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, 2002) and the Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (2012), for instance. Its centrality is reflected in policy agreements including the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (both 1992), the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDG) (2000-2015) and their successor the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) (2015-2030), the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) and the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda that defined the roadmap for the sustainable development of cities for the next 30 years (2016), as well as the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union (2009).

10Sustainable development also informs the work of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since its establishment in 1988 and that of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) since its inception in 2012, the reports of which in turn feed into international organisations’ deliberations. Moreover, sustainable development shapes programmes of research, such as Horizon 2020 and its successor Horizon Europe 2021-2027 in the European Union, for instance.

11This cursory historical outline shows a growing institutionalisation of environmental concerns, a widening of the scientific base informing action and the choice of a political conceptual framework of action: sustainable development. There is no doubt that this institutionalisation at the highest political level represents intense activity in terms of consultation, preliminary research, diplomatic negotiations and harmonisation. Even so, if we assume that “every meeting has demonstrated the universality of concern regarding the issues in question” (UNCED), can we conclude on the consensus that has been reached for “a new development agenda for the 1990s and beyond” at the time of the Earth Summit (UNCED)? And in what terms?

12One element of consensus is obvious: Nature is no longer considered as “benign” and capable of recovering from human actions as during the first Industrial Revolution. Today, it is perceived as vulnerable and “ephemeral” (Harrison and Burgess 298). This justifies human intervention to ensure its resilience, beyond the traditional nature conservation measures implemented since the nineteenth century. The term “biodiversity”, coined in 1985 by W.G. Rosen, has progressively come to define human understanding of the variability among living organisms, on the one hand, and to frame conservation policies, on the other hand.

13Yet, in spite of the good intentions expressed by international organisations and particularly the UN in the early 1990s, the situation worsened between the Rio Earth Summit and Rio + 20: “climate change, pollution and unsound chemicals management, unsustainable water use, unsustainable agriculture, unhealthy cities, massive biodiversity loss, emerging diseases, deforestation, desertification, and the depletion and degradation of oceans” (Sustainable Development Solutions Network 4). This assertion clearly puts into question the methods and instruments used to protect the natural world, which goes far beyond the scope of this article.

14However, understanding the underlying value(s) associated with the natural world may help to understand the choices made by international decisionmakers, as well as their limits. Assessing what we obtain from nature, its diversity and its processes is a way of spelling our understanding of the conditions of human life on earth. Therefore, the next section analyses the vocabulary and terminology that have framed research and action since the early 2000s.

2. Choosing concepts

15In a nutshell, the operationalisation of an environmental perspective into international and national policies has hinged upon two mechanisms: a breakdown into processes and units of what humans are provided with (tangibly or intangibly) by nature, and an assessment/interpretation of the renewability of these “components” in order to warrant protection/conservation policies. The word “component” is by no means satisfactory, but its use here is justified by the fact that all the terms that refer to the relationships between humans and non-human nature have become “loaded”, i.e. (ab)used to squeeze them into discourse and policy instruments, to the point of becoming difficult to use in a neutral way.

16Reading between the lines of how the terms in question are defined and what vision underlies them will, it is argued, reveal what is expected of nature in the present and the future, i.e. its worth, and what means are proposed to achieve progress on protecting the natural world. In the next section, the terminology that has become mainstream is analysed, with particular emphasis on two terms in wide use: “ecosystem services” and “nature-based solutions” as well as a more recent concept which may open new doors: “nature’s contributions to people”. Other expressions to have emerged in the period are mentioned along the way, as they provide interesting alternative views articulated by dissident voices that have not come to prominence in international political spheres.

2.1 “Ecosystem services”

17The term ecosystem services describes how societies depend on the multifunctional uses of nature. More precisely, it refers to the flows of benefits that populations derive from biological diversity and thus provides a useful, although not exhaustive, checklist of what makes human life possible (Tinch).

18Although already in use in the works of P. and A. Ehrlich (1981), Ehrlich and Wilson (1991), Daily et al. (1997), Costanza (1997), the term ecosystem services rose to prominence as a framework for the valuation of sustainability in 2001, when the United Nations Secretary-General commissioned a study to meet the needs of decision-makers, NGOs and the business world. The purpose of the study was to assess “the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being and to establish the scientific basis for actions needed to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems and their contributions to human well-being” (MEA ii), ecosystems being defined as dynamic complexes “of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the non-living environment interacting as a functional unit” (MEA v).

19The resulting report, Ecosystems and Human Well-being, widely known as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), was based on a review of evidence by over 1,360 experts from ninety-five countries. At the core of the ecosystem services approach lay the linkages between ecosystem health and human health, the multiple scales and the multifunctionality of ecosystems. The report’s key contribution to policy was the authors’ classification of “the benefits people obtain from ecosystems” (MEA v) under four headings: “supporting services” (e.g. soil formation, pollination, photosynthesis), “provisioning services”, also called goods (timber, food, water, fuel, fibre, medicine), “regulating services” (climate, flood and air regulation, water purification) and “cultural services” (recreation, spiritual fulfilment, aesthetic, mental health, etc.). Together, these diverse services were said to provide contributions to five essential constituents of human wellbeing: “security”, “access to basic resources”, “health”, “good social relations” and “freedom of choice”.

20It is worth noting, if only because it has often been passed under silence since, that although the report emphasises the benefits of nature to human wellbeing so as to examine various future scenarios, it also recognises that

the actions people take that influence ecosystems result not just from concern about human well-being but also from considerations of the intrinsic value of species and ecosystems. Intrinsic value is the value of something in and for itself, irrespective of its utility for someone else. (MEA v)

21The authors of the study did not claim to be exhaustive, yet it took a considerable effort to produce such a substantial body of evidence to provide a snapshot of the world’s ecosystems. It consisted in four volumes containing over two thousand pages of technical findings, while the summary for policymakers was over one hundred pages long.

22A similar analysis of urban systems as social, biological and physical complexes in order to enhance the benefits of nature in cities had been made in the late 1990s. It adopted a “green infrastructure” model and its purpose was to enhance the importance of urban green spaces for city dwellers and advocate taking them more into account in local policies and budgets. Because it is mostly confined to the urban stage, the green infrastructure approach will not be dealt with here. Suffice it to say that the ecosystem services framework has also permeated green infrastructure literature and policies (i.e. ecosystem services inform policies related to natural spaces in cities).

23The MEA emphasised the extent of the loss of biodiversity in the previous fifty years. It stressed the imperative need for “significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices that are not currently under way” (MEA 1) if the increasing demands linked with demographic change and increasing living standards were to be met. Ecosystem degradation was blatant: “approximately 60% (15 out of 24) of the ecosystem services evaluated in this assessment (including 70% of regulating and cultural services) are being degraded or used unsustainably” (MEA 6), while poverty and social injustice, linked with ecosystem depletion, were identified as “a significant barrier to achieving the Millennium Development Goals” (MEA 2). Land use change (agriculture, urbanisation, deforestation) was identified as a major cause of ecosystem degradation, air pollution and water pollution, as well as decline in genetic diversity. The MEA also identified climate change as “the dominant direct driver of biodiversity loss and changes in ecosystem services globally” (MEA 17) with obvious consequences on human health and poverty, therefore on the possibility of achieving the MDGs.

24Apart from providing robust evidence that could feed into future policies and mechanisms, the MEA offered the added bonus of putting a name on a category so far neglected by policy instruments, that of “cultural services”. This vindicated the value of relational services provided by nature (e.g. beauty, peace, spiritual connection, mental health) as equally valid for public policies as the other, more tangible, services. This novelty has since proved an invaluable contribution for the defence and addition of some natural spaces, especially in urban areas and especially by the health sector.

  • 2 In view of subsequent political choices, it may be of interest to the reader to know of the other t (...)

25Lastly, the authors of the MEA designed four possible scenarios for the future and identified the “adapting mosaic” (MEA 19) as the best one. This was based on the scale of “regional watershed-scale ecosystems” as the “focus of political and economic activity”, with an emphasis on local institutions and local ecosystem management strategies, in which “societies develop a strongly proactive approach to the management of ecosystems” (MEA 19). In comparison, the other three scenarios2 were less likely to provide benefits for both human and ecosystem health. It is worth mentioning that at no time did the MEA authors consider “business as usual” a valid scenario in its attempt to avert future catastrophe.

26In order to stimulate the inclusion of ecosystem services into decision-makers’ agenda, the authors of the MEA stated that “economic and financial interventions provide powerful instruments to regulate the use of ecosystem goods and services”. They therefore suggested a “greater use of economic instruments and market-based approaches in the management of ecosystem services” to “influence human behaviour to address this challenge in the form of economic and financial instruments” (MEA 21): taxes, creation of markets (carbon market), payment for ecosystem services (e.g. to landowners). But they also stressed the importance of education and a democratic governance to improve the situation.

27The MEA has been key in shaping society’s understanding of the role that biodiverse ecosystems play in the environment and their benefits for humankind today. The ecosystem services concept has gained considerable clout both in science and policy (Kull, Arnauld de Sartre and Castro-Larrañaga 2) and has become part and parcel of many subsequent national assessments and policies concerning climate change (Locatelli 481), green infrastructure and nature conservation, among which the European Commission’s Action Plan for Nature, People and the Economy (2017) and, more recently, the European Biodiversity Strategy 2030 (2020) as part of the European Commission’s flagship policy: the Green Deal.

28Due to the plasticity of the ecosystem services concept, its application by decision-makers and managers is complex. The MEA has raised as many questions as it has solved, among which: how should these “goods” and “services” provided by nature be translated into norms and included into budgets? What is the link between ecological and economic systems? What criteria should be used to assess it? How much does it cost to substitute – if at all possible – a depleted ecosystem service? If people (for example, farmers) modify their practices to preserve ecosystems, who should subsidise them?

29In parallel with the work leading to the MEA, a reflection was ongoing among economists addressing the same questions. They focused on the concept of “payment for environmental services” (PSE), environmental services being positive externalities excluding marketable goods. The rationale for the economic approach rested on the argument that

without changes in institutions and incentives, further declines in natural capital are likely, as those who gain from actions that deplete natural capital will continue to avoid paying the full costs of their actions and pass these costs to poor societies and future generations. (Wunder 5)

30In this perspective, external beneficiaries of environmental services should “make direct, contractual and conditional payments to local landholders and users in return for adopting practices that secure ecosystem conservation and restoration” (Wunder 5).

31In the aftermath of the MEA, under the auspices of G8+5, environment ministers proposed to initiate an analysis of the global economic benefit of biological diversity, assess the costs of the loss of biodiversity and of the failure to take protective measures versus the costs of effective conservation. The result was a global study jointly initiated in 2008 by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment and the European Commission: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). TEEB stressed the need to make nature’s values visible, in order to mainstream the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decision making at all levels, through a triple process: “recognising value” (identification), “demonstrating value” (economic costs and benefits) and “capturing value” (inclusion of incentives, taxes and prices in policymaking) (TEEB). It also insisted that due attention be paid to “ecological ‘values’ (ecosystem integrity and life-support functions) and sociocultural implications” (de Groot 5).

32Although both ecosystem services and the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity lay claim to the term “values” to ground their assessment, their emphasis was different: the “services” identified in ecosystem services give rise to “benefits” in environmental services terms, in the two senses of the word benefit. Thus, environmental services stress the benefits that human actions lead to in preserving an aspect of the environment, which should lead to benefits/retributions to reward this virtuous attitude (in the form of subsidies, markets, awards, compensations, or penalties for externalities). Ecosystem services, on the other hand, insist on the multiple services (developed above) that ecosystems render to human wellbeing, which are often intertwined and can therefore not easily be broken up into additive components (Wunder 4). It is important to add here that both systems of values are underpinned by the values society holds with respect to the natural world, which is place and culture dependent.

33New terms in the discourse on the values of nature have subsequently added a layer of complexity to the debate, without displacing the term ecosystem services.

2.2 “Nature-based solutions”

34The term nature-based solutions was promoted in 2012 by the NGO International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a worldwide authority on nature conservation, and the European Commission, specifically “to promote nature as a means for providing solutions to climate mitigation and adaptation challenges” (Nesshöver 1216). This “umbrella concept” (Cohen-Shacham xi), at the science-policy-practice interface, reflects a positive view of how to “help societies address a variety of environmental, social and economic challenges in sustainable ways. They are actions which are inspired by, supported by or copied from nature” (European Commission 5).

35The premise behind nature-based solutions is that many challenges society faces stem from human activities that have failed to take ecological limits into account. As a consequence, it is through a partnership with nature, through action at ecosystem level, that positive outcomes may be reached and natural environments restored to their full capacity to provide their services to society. The future will thus be guaranteed through harnessing the power and sophistication of nature (European Commission 2), rebuilding its resilience and improving risk-management systems for the benefit of green growth. In doing so, Europe should become the leader of innovation in this field worldwide. The approach adopted here is not an ecosystemic one, rather a strategic one responding to specific challenges and sectorial policies, namely “Nature-based Solutions for water security”, “Nature-based Solutions for food security”, “Nature-based Solutions for human health”, “Nature-based Solutions for disaster risk reduction” and “Nature-based Solutions for climate change” (Cohen-Shacham iii).

36The contours of this term are still vague. However, it was chosen as the common frame for action in the United Nations Environment Programme’ “Nature for Life Hub” summit, convened by at the end of September 2020 to inspire and engage global audiences. The emphasis in nature-based solutions lies in providing alternative paths, through nature, to human-made solutions like infrastructure, technology, artificial intelligence (“smart” technologies), in the quest for sustainability. Finding inspiration in nature is viewed in a positive way in all areas of life, especially in the context of Covid-19, and this concept is probably more consensual and inspiring than technology-based systems. However, the term “solutions” raises questions. The risk is double: “overselling” nature, and “encouraging a perception of ecosystems as entirely substitutable by other assets used by humans” (Nesshöver 1224).

37Climate change provides a good illustration of this risk. Among the four principal goals identified by the Horizon 2020 Expert Group on Nature-Based Solutions and Re-Naturing Cities as potential areas responsive to nature-based solutions, it is suggested by the authors to tackle climate change thus: “more resilient responses and enhance the storage of carbon” (European Commission 4), the latter often taking the form of reforestation or prevention of deforestation. By all accounts, these are indispensable steps, but recent reports (IPCC, IPBES) show very clearly that resilience has limits, as does carbon storage, to decrease the negative impacts of climate change at a time when humans have never extracted so much from the earth or produced so many carbon emissions and so much waste. Thus, the added value of such “solutions” in relation to other approaches remains to be demonstrated, or at least begs for clarifications concerning the scope, the limits and the means of the concept, as well as its overlaps with the other concepts.

38The terms “inspired” and “copied” in the definition above echo a different take on nature, that of biomimicry. Advocates of biomimicry recommend copying the processes that nature has elaborated at length through trial and error to preserve life (Benyus). But a major difference between nature-based solutions and biomimicry is that the latter proposes to draw inspiration from nature to design solutions in all aspects of life. It is not just about reproducing an efficient natural design for industrial purposes, as is often associated with the concept, such as Velcro fasteners or the shape of an aerodynamic “nose” for a high-speed train. Biomimicry also ambitions to design solutions to improve social and institutional functioning according to natural workings, such as an optimal and frugal use of energy and resources, the principles of circularity, cooperation and complementarity. Applied to the human world, this could well involve a radical paradigm shift, which may explain why biomimicry has not permeated the institutional discourse of Western/westernised societies in the early twenty-first century.

2.3 “Nature’s contributions to people”

39One attempt to move away from a strictly Western, market-based view of the world in the present context of environmental emergency occurred during another major science-policy interface effort by governments, academia, and civil society to assess the state of the Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystems “and their contribution to human societies in order to inform policy formulation” (Díaz 270). Building on the MEA, and as an update to it, an independent intergovernmental body comprising over one hundred and thirty member governments was established in 2012 by 94 governments. It had a remit to provide policymakers with state-of-the-art knowledge “as well as the tools and methods to protect and sustainably use these vital natural assets” (IPBES 2). The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was based on the same principle of reviewing existing literature rather than producing its own. But one notable difference with the MEA was the desire of the IPBES team to include a wider range of participants. The MEA reflected predominantly a biological and economic approach, while the IPBES wished to include in its review of about fifteen thousand scientific and government sources, not only the natural and social sciences, but also the humanities, and “the knowledge of practitioners and indigenous and local communities” (IPBES 2), on a scale never attempted before. This wish to reflect a wider range of world views almost got the better of the enterprise, as two articles published in 2018 in Science (Díaz) and Nature (Masood) bear witness. Almost inevitably, gathering such a diversity of viewpoints to discuss the state of biodiversity and make recommendations brought about a crisis between the proponents of the ecosystem services school of thought and another group to whom such a view of nature, “which includes placing a monetary value on aspects of biodiversity as a way to include them in political processes driven by economics — [was] unacceptable” (anon. 409).

40Admittedly, disagreements between the proponents of the ecosystem services school of thought and people who rejected the economic perspective of nature had started with the MEA process (Peterson Yet, what is noteworthy here is that was achieved as a result of negotiations, rather than a hegemonic view imposing itself on all participants, was the creation of a new concept based on a looser view of the relations between humans and non-human nature. In the final report – entitled The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services when in fact the term ecosystem services appears only eight times in fifty pages –the term that translates this consensus is “nature’s contributions to people” (used thirty-nine times in the main report). It structures the innovative 2019 report that

embraces a wide range of descriptions of human-nature interactions, including through the concept of ecosystem services and other descriptions, which range from strongly utilitarian to strongly relational. The concept of nature’s contributions to people was developed to embrace a fuller and more symmetric consideration of diverse stakeholders and world views. (IPBES 2)

41Although this last concept lies beyond the scope of the present study, in so far as it has yet to make its way into mainstream policies, it seems valuable to present it here for further discussion in the next section. The switch from “services” to “contributions” acknowledges that there are different, equally valid, views of nature based on culture. It also bears witness to a more balanced view of the “services” or “benefits” of nature to humans by eliminating the hierarchical implication of “service” and by including all the “contributions” of nature, even the negative ones (diseases, allergies, predation, etc.).

42The classification obtained with this lens hinges on three overlapping groups: “material” nature’s contributions to people provide elements that are consumed in some way; “nonmaterial” nature’s contributions are “nature’s effects on subjective or psychological aspects underpinning people’s quality of life, both individually and collectively” (Díaz 271), while “regulating” nature’s contributions relate to “functional and structural aspects of organisms and ecosystems that modify environmental conditions experienced by people and/or regulate the generation of material and nonmaterial contributions” (Díaz 271). Culture irrigates the three categories, a major difference with the ecosystem services, in which it is confined to the “cultural services” category. Food, for instance, is typically a material contribution; but in many cultures it is endowed with symbolic meanings that make it pertain to the nonmaterial contributions as well.

3. Shaping and reflecting values

43The politicisation of the environment and evidence-based policymaking have made matters complex for both researchers and politicians: the former have to understand and navigate the political and diplomatic systems, while the latter have to be aware of the vast array of scientific and other information available for informing policy. What lessons can be drawn from this process and its results over the last three decades?

44First of all, the reports produced at the request of international institutions or groups of governments (MEA, IPCC, IPBES reports), although neutral in their expression, make for disheartening reading. Fifteen years after the MEA deplored the degradation of fifteen out of twenty-four ecosystem services (MEA 6), the IPBES noted that that fourteen of the eighteen categories of contributions of nature that were assessed had declined since the 1970s (IPBES 11). The authors point out that it is “likely that most of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 will be missed” (IPBES 15). The reports inexorably spell failure and possible demise, yet not once does the word “emergency” appear, or expressions of doubt as to the efficiency of policies or the willpower of politicians. This is despite the fact that “urgent action” is often called for in the face of undeniable decline. The stress is placed on the time scale available for action, and yet action has been particularly slow: the IPBES report was published almost fifteen years after the MEA, while a regular update to the MEA had been advocated every four to eight years. Emphasis is also put on the achievability of positive outcomes, provided “scenarios that include transformative change” are adopted, otherwise

negative trends in nature, in ecosystem functions and in many of nature’s contributions to people are projected to continue to 2050 and beyond, due to the projected impacts of increasing land-/and sea-use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change. (IPBES 16)

45Yet, it is difficult to perceive transformative changes in policies over the last two decades.

46The second characteristic that the terms used in mainstream international politics have in common is, to a greater or lesser extent, their commodification of the natural world. Natural ecosystems are conceived as resource pools providing functions, goods, services, benefits or solutions. Over the past twenty years, despite an unprecedented improvement in the knowledge base concerning natural resources and processes and, more importantly still, their limits, mainstream policies have continued to reflect an anthropocentric view of the management of biodiversity. The worth of nature is weighed against the benefits it may provide for humans, it is a “social nature” (Whatmore and Boucher 167), a nature for humans which is valued, a nature that is produced and reproduced only through social relations organised via policies based on an “environmental gain” approach. Admittedly, instrumentalising nature as a resource base has been a constant, whether for raw materials or for recreation, in human history. In that respect, the twenty-first century proves to be no different. Yet the context is different, as is the scientific evidence of the complex workings of nature, and calls for a paradigmatic change, in vain.

47From that point of view, the emergence of the category of “nature’s contributions to people” mentioned above, is interesting for two reasons. First, it reflects the power, not just of a multidisciplinary approach, but of a transdisciplinary one, with respect and trust as cornerstones for the discussions between specialists of various disciplines and stakeholders from all walks of life. Resisting “the scientific goal of attaining a universally applicable schema” (Díaz 272), the positive confrontation of different kinds of knowledge and of understanding of the natural world can create new frameworks of understanding and action based on complexity, not hegemony. Secondly, this new term turns away from the acceptance of human exceptionalism in nature which forms the backbone of international organisations’ take on nature. It reflects a desire to shift away from a reification of nature and natural processes which negates both the intrinsic value of nature (asserted in the MEA, but not turned into action) and humans’ belonging to it (absent from the literature). It remains to be seen whether policymakers will embrace such concepts or whether they will prefer to stick to the known formulas.

48The third feature, a logical consequence of the previous two, is that human needs for nature have been translated into a valuation system which seems to have lost sight of the fact that “ecosystem functions exist in nature beyond human agency” (Rodríguez-Labajos and Martínez-Alier 336). Yet, although ecosystem services literature is not entirely responsible for commodifying nature, the application of this model often leads to attempts to quantify and monetize elements of biodiversity so that they can be valued and traded against other benefits, with their trade-offs evaluated in a single, usually monetary, currency (Deliège and Neuteleers).

49With the help of increasingly sophisticated economic tools, everything from street trees, walks in the woods to tons of CO2 not released into the air all come with a price tag that may stimulate decision makers’ “willingness to pay” (itself one of the classic contingent valuation systems used by economists) and contribute to a “green” economy. On the positive side, putting a price on ecosystem services may have played a part in discrediting climate change deniers’ belief that climate change is “an expensive hoax” (Duffy 16): quite the reverse, all the economic literature on the environment points to the fact that providing natural services can save enormous amounts in budgets of all sorts (health, infrastructure, energy, security, among others) and that the most expensive option is to do nothing.

50However, this narrow interpretation of goods and services into investment and returns on investment terms leads to preferences in public spending which may, in all logic in a context of constrained budgets, exclude the less profitable ones. The latter often correspond to the cultural ecosystem services, less readily amenable to “monetary metrics”, which results in their lagging behind and not being mainstreamed into policy (Díaz 271). The multifunctionality of ecosystem services and their linkages may easily be lost sight of to the detriment of a piecemeal approach sweeping the less obviously profitable of them under the carpet.

51Worse, this interpretation can lead to rapid, incoherent changes within the same policy sector, depending on the ways in which financial returns are calculated, which depends on the valuation methods used by researchers. The case of the UK public forestry estate is enlightening in this respect. Condemned to privatisation by the British government in 2010 for its poor return on public investment (Nail), it was vindicated six months later by the very same government for its contribution to the four categories of ecosystem services (among which “biodiversity, recreation, carbon stocks, ood alleviation, timber and non-timber products”, UK NEA 47). It therefore became a profitable public investment (UK NEA 22). This justifies in retrospect English demonstrators’ outcry and their slogan: “Hands off our trees”.

52This example raises wider questions as to the understanding of where the worth of nature lies, which goes far beyond economic reckonings but is liable to be reduced to them with variable, even contradictory results at times. This phenomenon is of course also linked to the timescale used: natural time and political time have very little in common. Short termism linked to electoral deadlines is hardly compatible with the need to anticipate changes that may bear fruit decades later and yet require immediate action and investment. Conversely, delays and diplomatic negotiations over decades are incompatible with natural emergencies requiring proactivity.

53Furthermore, even though economists seem to have become the most favoured experts of environmental policies by governments, some economic assessments remind one that economy is not an exact science and/or that some economists may live in a world of their own. The direct translation of ecosystem goods and services into hard cash and jobs can lead to puzzling comments, for instance when it comes to calculating the number of jobs that can be created/saved thanks to efficient environmental choices/policies. In one chapter of the UK National Ecosystems and their Services to Society (2011), the British version of the MEA, one can read that, according to a 2001 study,

the environment contributed £8.8 billion of goods and services annually to the Welsh economy, 9% of Welsh GDP and one in six Welsh jobs, mainly in the leisure and tourism, agriculture and forestry, water abstraction, conservation and waste management sectors. (Russell 981)

54and “wages worth £1.8 billion to the people of Wales” (Russell 1028). They may be forgiven for this claim since TEEB itself asserts that “around one European job in every six is somehow dependent on the environment” (UNEP 24). Their enthusiasm for figures seems to have led to an oversight of the first, sobering, sentence of the MEA summary for decision-makers: “Everyone in the world depends completely on Earth’s ecosystems and the services they provide” (MEA 1, italics mine).

55The fourth, and last, characteristic that comes out of the documents reviewed is the notion that natural processes and services can to a certain extent be emulated, reproduced or replicated. This comes as a result of their breakdown into discrete units, which seems to vouch for the possibility of substituting “pieces” of nature for other such “pieces” should they come to go missing (“biodiversity-offsetting”). Yet, as the IPBES experts assess,

most of nature’s contributions are co-produced with people, but while anthropogenic assets – knowledge and institutions, technology infrastructure and financial capital – can enhance or partially replace some of those contributions, some are irreplaceable. (IPBES 10)

56Humans have a vital role to play, that of choosing “alternatives in the face of an uncertain future” (IPBES 10), and choices entail projecting a value system onto reality and transforming reality as a consequence.

57One such example, where the value and the worth seem to have become one within a dominant economic valuation system, is the case of pollinating insects. Ruling out the neoniconitoid pesticides which have arguably contributed to colony decline in Europe has been requested by Members of the European Parliament since 2018, if only to abide by the precautionary principle while further research establishes the full causes and consequences of colony loss. Yet, it has met with limited success so far, like other losses in biodiversity. However, because pollinating has a direct effect on services that enter markets (in the form of food that is a part of the provisioning services), it can therefore be taken into account in economic calculations. Thus, the impact of loss of pollinators has been converted into hard cash: pollinating 75% of crop plants, which is what bees and other pollinating insects do for free, amounts to an estimated “US $ 215 billion in 2005, representing 9.5% of global food production value” (Vanbergen 251), “£430 million per annum” for the UK alone (UK NEA 32). This is without mentioning the contribution of pollinating insects to 90% of wild flowering plants, which represents a critical contribution to biodiversity and other ecosystem services (Vanbergen 251). Not only does their replacement by human contrivances, through technology (drones) or manpower (hand-pollination, like the character of Tao in Maja Lunde’s 2015 novel the History of Bees) not make good economic sense, but the consequences of forgetting the linkages between natural processes could be dire:

The substantial gains that humans have experienced by changing some ecosystem services have been at the expense, to varying degrees, of other services. For example, increasing agriculture typically involves an increase in fertilizer and water use and the expansion into natural lands, leading to a decline in water quality and availability, loss of biodiversity and a loss of forest cover (which can have knock-on effects such as release of greenhouse gases and an increased flood risk). (House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee 13)

58This case illustrates two important elements of the valuation discussion. The first one is that the cost of the so-called “supporting ecosystem services” such as soil and pollination, like the cost of cultural services to some extent, is very often neglected because these services do not reach the market. However, it would probably be exorbitant, if feasible, to reproduce them artificially. The second one is that behind economics lurks ideology that assesses life according to various criteria, and threatened species may well be the victims of the focus on ecosystem services (McCauley):

Markets do not care if rainforests fall, if glaciers shrink, or if the values of indigenous cultures are displaced or captured in the service of capitalism […]. When nature health becomes converted into the dollar sign, it is the dollar not the nature that is valued. (Sullivan 127)

59Economy, like any other sector, is part of the paradigm in which it operates, not an expert framework providing neutral answers. In this respect, it is worth noting that during the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity, the first ever on this topic at heads of State level, which took place on 30 September 2020, a good number of declarations alluded to the need to question the current economic models and their underlying assumptions. This echoes recent research which stresses the excessive emphasis on economic criteria (Folkersen), asserting that “no single valuation method is able to capture the full spectrum of values of nature.” (Jacobs et. al. 2018) Thus, ecosystem valuation is increasingly being analysed as the reflection of a plurality of value-laden factors, often connected to power relations (Jacobs et. al. 2020), that underlie decision-making. The diverse conceptualisation of the values and benefits of nature should, therefore, lead to a “plural valuation” (Zafra-Calvo et. al.) of ecosystems. It remains to be seen whether this will be taken up and turned into compelling action.


60The first two decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a string of programmes, research and new concepts translating the need to account for our relationships to the natural world in a context of emergency. Academic publications and institutional literature on the topic of biodiversity and ecosystem services have grown exponentially since 2005 and this has culminated in a paradox.

61On the one hand, never have humans known so much about the benefits they derive from the natural world in which they are immersed. On the other hand, the attempt at valuing nature through its ecosystem services to protect it has often failed to engage society at large in the protection of nature. Rather, it has resulted in a valuation system based on the narrow, culturally loaded filter of economic valuation which excludes humans from the reckonings and from nature (Turnhout).

62The framework of ecosystem services and nature-based solutions corresponds to the need of decision makers to ascertain assets and justify investments objectively so as to contain emergency interventions. But, as has been shown, clarifying the concepts underlying this endeavour at the highest level of international politics at the beginning of the Anthropocene falls short of providing a sufficiently broad and robust base for immediate protective action. In spite of some real efforts and of the undeniable interest of looking for clear instruments to underlie effective policies, decision makers have lacked ambition and the willpower to “stop the loop of doom” in Ursula von der Leyen’s words at the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity. Organisations and governments have accepted defeat after defeat with regards to the objectives they had themselves set, seemingly content for example with the prospect of “meeting some components of the majority of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets” (CBD 10) while, all in all, significant progress has been achieved for four out of the 20 objectives only. In the same way as there was relief in some quarters in 2015 at the launch of the new set of Sustainable Development Goals 2015-2030 which created a diversion from the (too) limited results of the Millennium Development Goals 2000-2015, in the autumn of 2020, it began to be suggested that (due to the Covid-19 crisis) the Sustainable Development Goals would probably not be reached by 2030. Likewise, on the eve of the United Nations’ Summit on Biodiversity, due to take place in New York on 30 September 2020 on the theme of “Urgent action on biodiversity for sustainable development”, one could read on the UN’s website: “as we approach the end of the UN Decade on Biodiversity 2011-2020, progress towards global biodiversity targets including those of the SDGs has been insufficient”. This may be the reason why, on 28 September 2020, sixty-four heads of State or Governments (including the EU) felt the need to issue a “Leaders’ Pledge for Nature”, in order to send a united signal of their will to step up global ambition for a “green recovery” post-Covid (or as an exercise in political communication?), in anticipation of the 15th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2021.

63The other side of the coin is that the concepts that have been integrated to the international policy framework testify to a hegemonic vision of humankind’s relationships with its natural surroundings based on capital investment and offset schemes. But such environmental politics based on quantifiable assessments of the benefits we get from nature have not managed to raise people’s awareness and engage people in protecting it, leading to a “biodiversity communication deficit” as various authors note (Legagneux et al. 3): a cost-benefit analysis of natural goods and services fails to capture what humans find in nature, often linked to intrinsic values (Bekessy, McCauley, Runhaar). Worse, it looks as though messages about the need for ecosystem services tend to reinforce “egoistic values” (Bekessy 11), which, in the long run, undermine public concern for biodiversity (Crompton 21). Focusing on services may give a false sense of security, leading to a belief that “nature will find its way” and go on providing services, at the expense of some species along the way.

64Unfortunately, the humanities have remained at the margins of the discussion on the value of nature and/or have been openly opposed to a commodification of nature’s worth, resulting in them being largely excluded from the valuation of the benefits of contact with nature in all its forms.

65As has been mentioned with the case of the IPBES, alternative views have recently emerged from the global South (Arturo Escobar’s and Enrique Leff’s political ecology, for instance) and from the humanities at large (as well as from civil society, as is analysed in other articles in this volume) but they have not (yet) entered mainstream policies. Yet, a recent current could steer a reflection towards a new ontology of nature. This can be seen as part of a wider trend associating research and justice (Dardenne 10) which has begun to permeate such disciplines as anthropology, environmental history, feminist geography, colonial history, environmental humanities, animal studies, among others. And of course, it has irrigated literature and the arts. Among recent beacons let us just quote the Collège de France’s “Natures in question” multidisciplinary seminar (2017) convened by Philippe Descola, Richard Powers’ bestseller The Overstory (2018), Timothy Morton’s Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (2017). To this, we should add the recent suggestion of framing our nature-related policies in a new concept, “nature-based thinking” (Randrup et al. 2020), which suggests that humans would be well inspired to start thinking as nature does, in other words agency is not reserved to humans. These, among many other ongoing initiatives and reflections, testify to the imperative and urgent need to redefine human relationships with nature along ethical lines, and find ways and means of integrating these ethical reflections into international agendas.

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1 In environmental historians’ terms, “the Anthropocene began when human actions became the main driving forces behind some basic earth systems, such as the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle, and the general human impact on the Earth and its biosphere lurched upward to new levels.” (McNeill and Engelke 209)

2 In view of subsequent political choices, it may be of interest to the reader to know of the other three scenarios: the “Global Orchestration” scenario was synonym with globalisation, economic liberalism and “a reactive approach to ecosystem problems”, the “Order from Strength” scenario depicted a “regionalized and fragmented world, concerned with security and protection […] paying little attention to public goods, and taking a reactive approach to ecosystem problems” and the “TechnoGarden” scenario envisaged a “globally connected world relying strongly on environmentally sound technology, using highly managed, often engineered, ecosystems to deliver ecosystem services, and taking a proactive approach to the management of ecosystems in an effort to avoid problems.” (MEA 19)

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Sylvie NAIL

University of Nantes
Sylvie Nail is a professor of contemporary British Studies at the University of Nantes. Her research focuses mainly on the intersection of culture and policy in the relationships with the natural environment in Europe and the Americas from a double perspective: urban anthropology and public policy.

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