The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform of Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES): why language matters?

By Lavínia Pereira and Olivia Bina

‘Language is crucial to how we perceive the natural world. Help me to find better ways of describing nature and our relationships with it so we can better defend it’

George Monbiot

Some of the best articles we have read in the last years concerning environmental issues are, without a doubt, those by George Monbiot. And why is that? While sometimes he seems to be addressing marginal topics, he actually touches upon what can really make a difference. Why language matters is a particularly important question to be answered by the scientific community if it is concerned about becoming a transformative agent and help build more sustainable futures.

Language matters, not only in what concerns concepts and definitions. It is also a question of appeal and inspiration. Why aren’t we driven by terms such as ‘environment’, ‘natural resources’ or, more even, ‘ecosystems services’? Or by their opposites: ‘planetary boundaries’, ‘rates of extinction’ or ‘habitat disruption’? We have absolutely no experiential or existential connection with them.

While the supposed neutrality of those terms should be an advantage to the production of a discourse with its own claims of truth, with their unambiguous and purely descriptive dimensions, within the public discourse they risk completely missing their goal. In relation to our mundane, embodied, relational, day-to-day experience, they have no meaningful echo at all.

What do they tell us about the vibrant effect and sublime experience from within our small human bodies of a sudden thunderstorm in the middle of an autumn’s afternoon? What do they tell us about the specific mineral scent of a small river bank enveloped in the warm breeze passing through the pine trees on a summer day?

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Cacela Velha, Ria Formosa. Source: Lavínia Pereira.

The embodied and biological entanglement that characterizes our relationship with other living subjects and non-human powers that ‘happens emotionally and experientially through shared aliveness… [Within] a meaningful experience’ (Weber and Kurt, 2015) have been largely overlooked in the framing of global environmental agendas. Why would that be? Let us look into the case of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform of Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES).

Established in 2012, the IPBES seems to have anticipated Monbiot’s call: the need to include plurality of views and meanings concerning biodiversity and human-nature relationships in its Conceptual Framework was early acknowledged and latter accomplished. Created with the intent of assessing the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services under the initiative of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP, 2010), the goal of the IPBES is to help decision-making with the ‘conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development’.

Its Conceptual Framework (see fig. 1) seeks to strengthen the science-policy interface, providing a common tool to inform policy-makers and different stakeholders on the elements involved in assessing ‘the complex interactions between the natural world and human societies’ (Díaz et al., 2015). One of the focuses of the Framework is to integrate diversity of views on human-nature relations, from different disciplines, stakeholders and knowledge systems.

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Figure 1. The IPBES Conceptual Framework. Source: IPBES.

Indeed, the 2015 Framework integrates the contributions from other knowledge systems, namely Indigenous Local Knowledge (ILK), in the 2012 draft: Mother Earth and Systems of Life, Nature’s gifts, and Living-well in balance and harmony with Mother Earth, which was originally built upon Western scientific terms and econometric languages. One first step was commendably done to include diversity of languages and meanings into the Framework. Yet, did it have any effective impact?

In the 2015 definitive version of the Conceptual Framework, the original elements and IKL contributions are framed under the ‘inclusive categories’ and headlines (in black), that ‘should be intelligible and relevant to all stakeholders involved in IPBES and embrace the categories of western science (in green) and equivalent or similar categories according to other knowledge systems (in blue)’ (Díaz et al., 2015: 5).

The headlines are supposed to be accepted as inclusive of equivalent or similar categories that are originally generated in different knowledge systems. We immediately understand what the risk might be here: the values, meanings and worldviews represented by less visible knowledge systems might be easily obliterated by the dominant knowledge system, which tends to be reproduced rather then questioned.

‘Words encode values that are subconsciously triggered when we hear them. When certain phrases are repeated, they can shape and reinforce a worldview, making it hard for us to see an issue differently’ (Monbiot, 2017). Tacit and unquestioned views underlying the epistemic foundations of public life (Jasanoff, 2005; Miller 2008), consistently reproduced through language, might be at the origins of our inability to trigger change.

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Cork pieces on the way to Monchique. Source: Olivia Bina.

The arguable advantages of supposedly descriptive and neutral dimensions of Western scientific approach and ecosystems services in allowing communication with policy-makers and between different stakeholders (Borie and Hulme, 2015) might, on the opposite, work as barriers for the expression of plurality of languages, more subtle or nuanced ways of expressing human-nature relationship.

If we are still relying on expressions such as ‘ecosystem services’ to convey nature’s value, using a language in which ‘wild animals and plants are described as resources or stocks... as if their role is to serve us’ (Monbiot, 2017), we might be heading the opposite direction to the desired one. Language and knowledge inform our perception and values and, if not properly questioned, they might even prevent us to see beyond our specific worldview and mind-set (see Meadows, 1999).

The Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services published by the IPBES in 2019 warns against the dangers and risks of insisting in ‘current trajectories’ concerning biodiversity conservation, and its failures. The Report concludes that only transformative change and a ‘system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values’ can revert the negative trends of biodiversity loss (Díaz et al., 2019: 5).

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Botanic Garden in Singapore. Source: Olivia Bina.

Without questioning the paradigm lying underneath meanings and language, goals and values that characterize the dominant socio-economic system, public discourses and agendas will still be reproducing it. Only the creation of a space to enable effective plurality in meaning and values can allow us to overcome the deadening effects of an inflexible and sterile monoculture (Turnbull, 2003: 232).


Lavínia Pereira is a Research Fellow at ICS – ULisboa. Olivia Bina is Principal Researcher and Coordinator of the Urban Transitions Hub at ICS-ULisboa.

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