Why measuring biodiversity loss is not the most important problem to solve
Paradigm shifts and why environmental solutions need to be iterative
Biodiversity loss matters
Biodiversity loss (also known as biospheric integrity) is the most transcended of the 9 planetary boundaries. In layman’s terms, of all the forms of environmental damage we cause as a species the most severe one is the extinction of other species, and the reduction of genetic diversity by selecting for genetically similar crops, animals, trees etc. It is now widely agreed that we stand amidst the world’s 6th mass extinction event.
This matters because the extinction of other species can result in ecosystem collapse, which eventually results in our own extinction. As Einstein famously said, if bees go extinct, humans will follow within 5 years. The web of life interacts in many ways science does not yet understand, therefore it is very likely that this collapse would result in soil degradation, climate instability as well as less drinkable water. Hence the urgency.
So surely understanding biodiversity loss is the most important thing to do? Perhaps, but through which paradigm?
Biodiversity matters because the extinction of other species can result in ecosystem collapse, which eventually results in our own extinction.
Let us first examine the notion of paradigms and paradigm shifts. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word paradigm is: A typical example or pattern of something.
Paradigm shift: a great and important change in the way something is done or thought about.
Paradigms are important because they define how we perceive and interact with reality. Humans are story-telling animals. We weave our understanding of reality together through stories (and also implicit models). One could therefore argue that a paradigm is a set of stories that define how a society perceives and interacts with reality and therefore shapes itself.
You might wonder what this has to do with biodiversity but hang in there.
In order for us as a society to have any chance of surviving environmental disaster we need to perform a certain shift from paradigm A to Z. Since for our interaction with reality / nature to change, we need to change our paradigms around it.
There are two parameters here, time and (shift) distance. This means we need to shift at a certain pace, we need to get there fast enough, before certain irreversible boundaries are crossed. Conversely we also need to experiment and learn as we progress, the application of a paradigm will require risk-taking and testing without causing too much collateral damage (physically on landscapes and also in terms of credibility).
The most interesting question is what the pattern is through which this shift occurs. If we observe the history of humanity it is very clear that in order to go from a paradigm A to a paradigm Z (which are fairly far apart), it will take iterations to do so. One cannot possibly go from A to Z in one go, this has to be a multi-step process.
How might we go from A to Z? “A” is the post-war Green Revolution society that avoided world hunger through the baby boom period by intensifying agriculture through chemical inputs, which is now leading us to environmental disaster. “Z” is a hypothetical post-environmental-crisis point of stabilisation where humans and nature live in harmony again.
It is key that after each step of the process that we do an honest post-mortem of which portions of the paradigm we are willing to let go of (as a society) in the next loop. This reflective aspect of the cycle is key to ensure that overall there is indeed an overall movement forward rather than being stuck in static circles as the below figure illustrates.
Every step of the way you want a little bit less “A” and a little bit more “Z”. But you cannot eliminate all A and replace it with Z, at least not at large scale.
In order to make this more concrete, let me ground us with a specific example, carbon markets.
Unpacking carbon markets
Carbon markets, both voluntary and regulated, are a system where corporations pay companies to offset their carbon emissions. The creation of these markets has introduced a whole set of players in the value chain around verification, carbon credit tokenisation, auditing, standard setting, etc.
Today climate change gets all the press (aside from pandemics and wars of course). It is the gateway drug into understanding human environmental impact if you will. The self-established “north star metric” of climate change is indisputably CO2 emissions, or rather CO2e (CO2 equivalent emissions of all green house gases combined).
Let us unpack what North star metrics are. It is a framework invented by Sean Ellis and early-on implemented at Spotify to create one common overarching metric that the entire team of a business could focus on and contribute to. From the north star, teams would implement their own more team-relevant metrics that feed into a hierarchy of KPIs that would all be interrelated. This framework is fairly analogous to Google’s OKR framework to drive performance. Ideal way to create clarity, transparency and focus inside of a tech organisation.
Carbon markets are a direct application of this type of tech industry thinking to the natural world. It creates a bridge, between the industry and the attempt at reducing our impact on our environments. This is great because it is a step forward in the shift (a little bit more towards “Z”, down the alphabet). However we have very much seen that the creation of carbon markets is in many ways the perpetuation of the paradigm that brought us to the environmental crisis in the first place (traces of “A”): The reinforcement of ecosystem services as a paradigm. The idea that there is natural capital out there that has value which should play a role in our economies. This still has an implicit paradigm of seeing other species as a resource that are exploitable in a global economy.
The implicit paradigm of (voluntary) carbon markets is: We will monetise the creation of carbon sinks. We will create deregulated financial markets around those. We will let corporations self-police around which credits are valid and which are not until regulation kicks in. And most of all, we are projecting value to the public through traditional metrics such as press coverage, amounts invested and market valuations that this solution is working. Feels fairly similar to the timber industry except we are diversifying the exploitation of a field or forest. The markets are somewhat still dictating the assessment of how well we are solving the climate issue.
Carbon markets are a direct application of this type of tech industry thinking to the natural world.
I am not here to demonise the way carbon markets work. I find them to be an interesting and even necessary tool and overall a step forward. They certainly bring attention to the emission offset problem, and if eventually we can push corporations to inset their emissions on top of offsetting then mission accomplished.
I am personally interested in the next frontier: Aside from offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, arguably the biggest environmental problem is to offset biodiversity loss. How might we approach that problem knowing what we know about carbon markets?
Offsetting biodiversity loss requires a paradigm shift
When I discuss biodiversity loss the question that always comes up is: how might we measure it?
It turns out some people have somewhat found ways to do it. The UK has a biodiversity metric which measures habitat sizes as a proxy for which species are present on a landscape. However this has some shortcomings such as the non-linearity of dimensions (a habitat twice the size of another does not necessarily have twice the animals and so on), the highly manual nature of assessing baselines and changes, etc.
Before trying to measure things the real question here is: how might we learn from the carbon markets and which mistakes do we want to ensure we do not replicate? To me the answer is clear: avoid metric tunnel vision.
Why is biodiversity metric tunnel vision limiting?
- Metrics create a layer of abstraction: The idea that one might know the state of an ecosystem just by escalating it into a number can dangerously abstract out parameters that are key in assessing ecosystem health. Ecosystem health has a hyper-localised context and one cannot follow the old global scalable metric frameworks that have served us well economically.
- Biodiversity simply is not measurable: When wanting to measure biodiversity one is confronted with the infinite complexity of our ecosystems. Are we talking about soil biodiversity? Larger animals? Insects? Plants? Each of these is a discipline of its own.
- Biodiversity is a lagging metric: Biodiversity loss happens as a consequence of all damaging environmental adversities. It is the downstream effect of poor practices. When learning and doing prevention it is always best to look at leading metrics as these will change first and indicate a change in a positive feedback loop earlier. Biodiversity loss / gain sometimes will take up to 20 years for a region’s ecosystem and emergent species to reappear.
Where do we go from here?
It is very tempting to try and solve the biodiversity loss problem in the same way we thus far addressed carbon offsetting. However as we progress down the rabbit hole of more and more complex environmental effects we need to leave aside our mental knee-jerk reactions and do an honest post-mortem and find ways to alter our mindset in order to not put in place familiar solutions to radically new problems.
The exercise of paradigm shifting requires pause, creativity and interdisciplinary investigation. It requires careful and quiet observation of our ecosystems and demands that we transcend the approaches we have had thus far. I actually believe that various disciplines help us make leaps into sensing what the further lines of thinking are. Interdisciplinary ecology I believe is the best way to push for a shift in mindset.
Here are some fields to look into for paradigm inspiration:
- Art: art is very fascinating to me as it is the most authentic form of human expression. It is very clear to me artists channel a higher intelligence and create their work without necessarily intellectually understanding it. Art has been directional in our societies and remains the most universal tool of collective narrative building without needing to be explained. However art is always suggestive and never literal therefore the right people need to be paying attention. Many ecological projects incorporate an element of art in them to stretch further down the paradigm shift path, a good example of this is the Sovereign Nature Initiative or people like Neri Oxman.
- Activism: activism takes political and ecological knowledge and operates through a set of tools that disincentives corporate and citizen behaviour to remain in the status quo when it needs changing. In the current world order activists serve as a myth busting system to call out when self-policed corporate environmental mitigations are performative (also known as greenwashing). They sort of fill the void for a lack of an institutional and forward-thinking governing body in many instances around environmentalism. It is a great way of identifying “what went wrong” in a solution.
- Systemic ventures: The systemic ventures framework was invented by Metabolic (the parent company of Fresh Ventures, where I currently am an entrepreneur-in-residence). The approach is to use systems thinking tools to map a system that has an issue that needs solving, identify the lever that needs shifting and to implement a long-term profitable solution that addresses the problem. It is somewhere in between impact investing and social ventures with a strong emphasis on systemic understanding. Ventures like these tend to pioneer in an industry often leading the way for other players.
- Climate tech / green industries: A lot of players in this field will want to invest into a direction that they believe in. They will not do it unless they can offer a traditional VC financial return profile. Hence they will come and push forward a solutions space once proven and marketable.
If disciplines were to perform more cross-pollination and that combinatory fields would emerge (like systems thinking itself) we could create a richer ecosystem of disciplines.
This is the point hopefully at which this climate crisis will coerce us into transcending our current limiting patterns and beliefs, and that we slowly lean into the emergence of what the new societal narratives will be.
Maybe biodiversity is not here to be measured but rather to be incorporated into the next iteration of our paradigm.