In this post Kai Chan, David Boyd, Harold Eyster & Rachelle Gould respond to Peter Bridgewater’s post ‘A transformers guide to taking back control?‘ on their article ‘Levers and leverage points for pathways to sustainability‘ – out today.

You can also read more from Kai Chan in The Conversation ‘After COVID-19, nations can tackle environmental crises by shifting priorities to sustainable development‘ and listen to his IPBES podcast on the same topic as this paper ‘Choose Your Own Adventure‘.

They say that a true sign of respect is when someone tells you to your face what they don’t like about something. It’s in this spirit that we’re happy to engage Peter Bridgewater on a few points of apparent critique, alongside his praise.

Bridgewater’s blog post captures much of the value of this exercise to pinpoint the levers and leverage points for transformative change to sustainability. With his decades of experience as a policymaker, but also strong scholarly interests, he provides crucial perspective on our article extending chapter 5 of the IPBES Global Assessment (Chan et al. 2019, 2020).

At the same time, Bridgewater’s post provides us with an opportunity to clarify a few key points where we differ.

First, Bridgewater rightly notes that our ‘grab’ is gloomy: we spend a few sentences reminding readers of the dire situation facing the planet’s biota, and by association, current and future generations of humanity. But we cannot ignore the dire context in which we find ourselves. Bridgewater rightfully notes that such dire warnings can overwhelm readers. The plight of the planet can sometimes feel too big to tackle, but that’s exactly why we wrote this piece: overwhelming problems require systemic change.

What Bridgewater calls suppositions are truly facts (i.e., well supported by evidence). It is a fact that “that humanity is at risk of losing up to a million species”. To call it a mere supposition “that humanity is … degrading many of nature’s crucial contributions to people” is to deny the legitimacy of science. The evidence supporting that statement was strong in 2005 with the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) and is now incontrovertible (Brauman et al. 2019). Lest we feed anti-science conspiracy theories, let’s please not counter the strongest evidence we have without a clear argument to the contrary!

Relatedly, a government official responding to connected text just recently asked IPBES experts to be more positive. The text was merely stating the facts and the possible ways forward. Policymakers: if you want such messages to be more positive, improve the state of the biosphere.

Second, Bridgewater pointed to the “academic setting” for this policy-relevant article, and “some of the overly-academic approaches”. For those interested in a representation of these ideas primarily targeting policymakers, see the Global Assessment’s Summary for Policymakers (SPM—IPBES 2019a). This paper arose due to the need we felt to also address these points in the academic literature. The rigorous methodology behind these findings was crucial to the debate in plenary, and to the strong wording that passed through that process into the SPM. That methodology is academic, and deserves the scrutiny of a journal’s academic peer review process and resulting platform. Just as we hoped, the paper benefited greatly from this peer review and editorial process, which strengthened the contextualization in the academic literature, honed key points, and clarified what was new. So, thank you, Peter and others!

Third, Bridgewater wondered whether the new review by Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta can help us all develop better visions of a good life. Although that review should certainly help nations implement better accounting procedures to reflect the economic value of natural capital, we do not hold out much hope that it will facilitate the adoption of more ambitious, accurate, and sustainable visions of a good life. Dasgupta’s review is powerful among conventional economists because it conforms to economic assumptions, which include the notion that a good life is one that satisfies instrumental preferences. But this limited notion leaves out a great deal, including diverse considerations that have been empirically demonstrated to result in better lives, and which offer new (and old) ways to decouple material consumption from enhanced well-being.

Fourth, we are tickled that Bridgewater considers ‘protecting’ nature to be ‘paternalistic’ and therefore troublesome. (Note: we did not write of ‘preservation’, a term that seems to deny the dynamism of nature.) We need to protect nature as well as conserving, stewarding, restoring, and using it sustainably. Accordingly, we use all of these verbs throughout the paper, in different contexts. We don’t find one term more paternalistic than the others. Given the definition of paternalism, which involves restricting freedom and responsibilities of subordinates in their supposed interest, many efforts at protection (and conservation, etc.) could be considered anti-paternalistic. All of these monikers reflect that we as humans are in a special position of power and responsibility, with each term denoting different kinds and contexts of use. The evidence is clear that a variety of uses—and zones of uses—are needed for different contexts.

Fifth, regarding ‘telecoupling’, Bridgewater commented that we “stretch a long bow by linking consumer demand to Covid-19”. Indeed, we relate the immediate actions to their ultimate consequences. This is key: it’s the heart of the idea of telecoupling. By demanding agricultural goods and products derived from the extraction of raw materials, consumers are bringing a wide range of farmers, hunters, miners, and homeowners into closer contact with wildlife species that harbour zoonotic diseases. The most direct form of this consumption is that of wildlife products, especially bought live in wildlife markets. Those looking for more detail on this point might listen to the new Nature Insight podcast series from IPBES, particularly the first episode with disease ecologist Peter Daszak. Recognizing the connections between actions and ultimate consequences is key to changing those consequences.

Finally, Bridgewater worried that we over-emphasised law, noting that “Generally environmental law has complicated matters, and rarely been that successful”. First, law and the rule of law is but one of five levers, so we argue it is emphasized appropriately. Regarding the success of law, imagine a world without environmental law—a continuation of the 1960s trajectory when rivers were catching on fire, smog was ubiquitous and only a minority of the world’s population had access to safe drinking water or adequate sanitation. Environmental law has had many specific successes in addressing direct drivers (think CFCs, POPs, vehicle emissions, drinking water quality, increasing share of renewable energy, banning the most hazardous pesticides). It has not yet addressed the increasing pressure caused by the indirect drivers which add up to increased consumption and its cumulative impacts.

Law only works when it is implemented and enforced—and for the vast majority of the world, that has not happened in an environmental context. For example, every nation has laws for environmental impact assessment (EIA), but in part because of shortcomings in the rule of law, EIA processes are chronically weak. Where the rule of law is strong, courts play an important role, along with civil society, Indigenous peoples and other actors, in holding governments accountable for their legal obligations.

Most contentious is Bridgewater’s claim that “We need more policies, rather than laws”. We understand that this is a popular perspective, as neoliberal turns have favoured non-regulatory and voluntary approaches in many nations. But we would counter it strongly. Yes, policy is key, but policy depends upon enabling laws. Furthermore, policy design and implementation are limited by the rule of law. If private interests can pressure policymakers, policies are weak on paper. If individuals or firms can escape the reach of policy due to weak enforcement of the law or a non-independent judiciary, policies are weak in practice.

What is the difference between laws and policies (when they are distinguished—acknowledging that in many cases we use ‘policy’ generally to include much of law and policy)? In general there are two. First, laws must be enacted through processes that in some contexts are transparent and provide opportunities for public participation. Policies, in contrast, can be drafted behind closed doors and need not even be made public. Second, laws are binding and enforceable, whereas policies are discretionary and unenforceable.

None of the paper’s authors imagined that transformative change would be uncontroversial, unless it was so abstract as to be meaningless. We guess we succeeded in providing enough detail to spark some disagreement. We hope this response will invite yet further debate.

If there was any concern we might take the critique harshly, rest easy. In turn, we hope we have offered no offense, and that it’s all water under the bridge, Peter! 😉


*For guidance and downloadable reference files for citing the IPBES Global Assessment, its chapters and the Summary for Policymakers, see here.

Brauman, K. A., L. A. Garibaldi, S. Polasky, C. Zayas, Y. Aumeeruddy-Thomas, P. Brancalion, F. DeClerck, M. Mastrangelo, N. Nkongolo, H. Palang, L. Shannon, U. B. Shrestha and M. Verma (2019). Status and trends – nature’s contributions to people (NCP). Global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondízio, J. Settele, S. Díaz and H. Ngo. Bonn, Germany, IPBES. Doi: 10.5281/zenodo.3832036

Chan, K. M. A., J. Agard, J. Liu, A. P. D. d. Aguiar, D. Armenteras, A. K. Boedhihartono, W. W. L. Cheung, S. Hashimoto, G. C. H. Pedraza, T. Hickler, J. Jetzkowitz, M. Kok, M. Murray-Hudson, P. O’Farrell, T. Satterfield, A. K. Saysel, R. Seppelt, B. Strassburg, D. Xue, O. Selomane, L. Balint and A. Mohamed (2019). Pathways towards a Sustainable Future. Global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondízio, J. Settele, S. Díaz and H. Ngo. Bonn, Germany, IPBES. Doi: 10.5281/zenodo.3832100

Chan, K. M. A., D. R. Boyd, R. K. Gould, J. Jetzkowitz, J. Liu, B. Muraca, R. Naidoo, P. Olmsted, T. Satterfield, O. Selomane, G. G. Singh, R. Sumaila, H. T. Ngo, A. K. Boedhihartono, J. Agard, A. P. D. d. Aguiar, D. Armenteras, L. Balint, C. Barrington-Leigh, W. W. L. Cheung, S. Díaz, J. Driscoll, K. Esler, H. Eyster, E. J. Gregr, S. Hashimoto, G. C. H. Pedraza, T. Hickler, M. Kok, T. Lazarova, A. A. A. Mohamed, M. Murray-Hudson, P. O’Farrell, I. Palomo, A. K. Saysel, R. Seppelt, J. Settele, B. Strassburg, D. Xue and E. S. Brondízio (in press). “Levers and Leverage Points for Pathways to Sustainability.” People and Nature. Doi: 10.1002/pan3.10124

IPBES (2019). Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. Brondízio et al. Bonn, Germany, IPBES Secretariat. Doi: 10.5281/zenodo.3553579

IPBES (2019). Global assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Bonn, Germany, IPBES Secretariat. Doi: 10.5281/zenodo.3831674

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Washington, DC, Island Press.