Missing the woods for the trees

If you have heard Sir Kenneth Robinson speak on education, you probably know the difference between the task and the achievement senses of the verb. If there is no learning, there is no education going on despite the engagement in the task of teaching. Much along the same lines, after over a quarter century of biodiversity and climate diplomacy (two of the Rio triplets), there has been an overall decline in vertebrate population abundance and the average global surface temperature has risen by about half-a-degree celsius. This is not to say that biodiversity and climate diplomacy is not sufficient to slow down the relentless loss in biodiversity as well as global warming.

It has never been in doubt that we depend on nature for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food and material we use and the economy we rely on. But that the interdependence among social, economic and environmental agenda is being recognized at the highest levels is a rather recent development. Is it too little too late, is this the best we can achieve collectively, or is it something else that bedevils humanity?

From 1970 through to 2012, there had been a 58 per cent decline in vertebrate population abundance while there has been a 29 per cent increase in the average concentration of carbon dioxide at the NOAA Mauna Loa site since December 1958 when record-keeping began there. Nevertheless, an illusion of progress is evident - the Paris Agreement is an example - which is possibly impeding gains. If the commitments made in Paris are met by all the countries, in 2030, greenhouse gas emissions would still exceed the level needed to remain under two degrees celsius by 12-14 billion tonnes of CO2. Even if by some miracle the global average surface temperature is contained within two degrees celsius, the physical world and the way of life of the people in certain parts of the planet and in low-lying islands would change irreversibly. This is already evident along the coasts of Louisiana, Bangladesh and West Bengal. Yet, much of the attention is fixed on CO2 levels rather than finding ways and resources for adaptation to climate change.

Undoubtedly, the course of socio-economic development needs to be steered on to a pathway that is not in conflict with the welfare of the people and the biosphere. A prerequisite for this is to understand the nature of decision-making that results in environmental, social and ecological degradation. Despite the complexity that defines the problems, solutions are often based on proxies/surrogates and metaphors. The problem that arises in such situations is the confusion between means and ends. Goodhart's law applies to public policy too; when a surrogate rather than an outcome is made a target for the purpose of conducting policy, actions quickly migrate toward maximizing the surrogate independent of outcomes.

In the field of biodiversity conservation, species depicted as keystone/flagship or umbrella gain preference over the ultimate goal of enabling the ecosystem or biodiversity conservation. The tiger is a case in point. The National Tiger Conservation Authority prescribed tiger habitat and population evaluation system is intended to "monitor the entire wilderness resource for which the tiger serves as the flagship". Take any of the country-level tiger status assessment reports for anything on the entire wilderness resource and it becomes apparent that the woods has been missed for the trees. It is another matter that flagship species may or may not be either keystone species or good indicators of the biological process. Despite the higher number of tigers being reported in every subsequent report, a careful perusal of the tiger reports also points toward the possibility of gaming the system. Nothing unusual here, as all metrics of scientific evaluation are open to abuse. As is well known in the economic sphere, when a feature of the economy is picked as an indicator of the economy, then it inexorably ceases to function as that indicator because people start to game it.

The challenge emanates from misrepresentation of terminology in public policy. Continuing with the concepts of keystone, flagship and umbrella species, a study that reviewed over 550 news articles containing these terms found that communication is largely biased towards mammals; everyday language plays a vital role in the interpretation of concepts, perpetuating particular interpretations while impeding other modes of comprehension, and words, concepts and metaphors influence how problems and interventions are framed.

It is time that we get off the treadmill and focus on arriving at the destination rather than the task of running.


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