How we value of nature affects how we treat nature!

Leuphana Professor contributes with students to the world’s most influential biodiversity report

2022-12-08 Professor Dr. Berta Martín-López and five Leuphana students are contributing authors of one chapter in the most recent IPBES report

Nature is being lost at rates never seen in human history. The values that we ascribe to nature are vital parts of our identities, cultures, economies, and ways of life. But how can we consider these diverse values in decisions? In October 2022 the IPBES released the Methodological Assessment on the Diverse Conceptualization of the Multiple Values of Nature and its Benefits, which aimed to answer that question. Leuphana Professor Dr. Berta Martín-López and her students Rieke Schneider and Jeanne Freitag are contributing authors. With the release of this IPBES report, they hope that societies will be able to better understand our reciprocal relations with nature and that decision-makers will foster actions to improve human-nature relations.  

About IPBES:

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is an independent, intergovernmental body set up in 2012 with the objective of improving the interface between scientific knowledge and political decisions on biodiversity, ecosystems, and human well-being. The organisation currently comprises 139 member States, with engagement of NGOs and other civil society actors. While not a United Nations entity, the IPBES secretariat is provided by the UN Environment Programme and is headquartered on the UN Campus in Bonn, Germany. Through the production of reports, IPBES stands out as a platform of excellence in combating the ecological crisis through science and evidence.

Leuphana Professor Dr. Berta Martín-López and her students Rieke Schneider and Jeanne Freitag ©Stella Eick
Leuphana Professor Dr. Berta Martín-López and her students Rieke Schneider and Jeanne Freitag
Berta, you are the lead and contributing author of various assessments of the IPBES. Can you please give us some insights why you are doing this and what effect you expect from these assessments?
Berta: Yes, I’ve been involved almost since the beginning of IPBES as one of the main authors of its conceptual framework that guides all reports and was published in 2015. Every assessment takes around four years. The writing is highly inclusive: The draft is uploaded on and everybody in the world can make comments. The authors, who are scientists, receive thousands of comments and respond to each one while adapting the text. This process is repeated three times before the assessment is launched and the Summary for Policymakers (SPM) is written. The SPM must be approved by all IPBES member states in the plenaries. That is why we sometimes feel like the text is minimalistic. Those plenaries have hundreds of registered participants, including observers from business, agriculture, local communities, young generations, and early career researchers. But also, stakeholders like Indigenous Peoples have a voice and can shape the text through nations’ delegations. 
The IPBES just received the Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity together with the IPCC. Congratulations! In spite of the award, what would you improve about the institution?
Berta: First, although the consideration of marginalized people is very mainstream through the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples and local communities; there is still room for non-heteronormative genders and for people with disabilities. Secondly, working for the IPBES is very demanding. For each report, we scientists spend many years, mainly in our free time, collecting and organizing the existing evidence. At the plenaries, we work non-stop, wake up early in the morning and go to sleep late. There is little room for caring practices in the process of building the IPBES reports. I would love to see an inner transformation of IPBES. If it aims to foster transformation toward sustainability, it needs to focus more on the processes and well-being of its community, for example, through practicing mindfulness or nonviolent communication. Finally, it is important to note that the scientific recommendations provided by the IPBES reports are not binding for policymakers. 
What is your contribution to the new report?
Berta: Together with other authors and coordinated by Professor Sander Jacobs, we designed the protocol to review the literature about valuation of nature, which is one key element of chapter three. We identified which scientific methods are used to value nature in different social and ecological settings and through individual and collective decision-making. What we found is that each method is designed to elicit a different set of values and that no method can assess all nature’s values.
To review the literature on nature valuation was a massive amount of work. This is why I sought assistance and I am happy to announce that five students from Leuphana University Lüneburg became contributing authors: Hanne Carla Bisjak, Jeanne Freitag, Mira Kracke, Rieke Schneider, and Alyssa Solvie!
Jeanne and Rieke, why did you take on the opportunity to become contributing authors of chapter three?
Jeanne: I wanted to gather a deeper insight into science and methods. When Berta invited us, I knew it would be challenging but also very exciting.
Rieke: What intrigued me was playing a role – although small – in such a big process where so many researchers and nations are involved. Just the logistics behind the paper struck me. 
What were you responsible for? 
Jeanne: Each student assistant collected data from 100 papers for 6 months starting with training by lead authors of the IPBES in April 2020. Along the way, we worked with scientists and students from Denmark, Mexico, and Co.
Berta: Beforehand, we created a guidance manual to code the scientific papers based on concepts like environmental justice, intergenerational equity, participation processes, stakeholders involvement, recognition and engagement of Indigenous Peoples and their knowledge; as well as valuation methods and value types. 
What did you learn?
Rieke: We had to read the first papers thoroughly to get used to our catalog of questions. Sometimes I had little expertise and learned a lot about the concepts by seeing the overlaps in publications despite different wordings. 
Jeanne: I learned a lot about the quality of papers. Some were clearly structured, and we knew where to find which information. Others were completely different and had to be read in detail.
Students sometimes struggle to read all the papers for their lectures. How did you manage to take on more studies besides university?
Jeanne: To be honest, it was hard to fit into daily life.
Rieke: Because it was very time-consuming. 
Berta: Originally, we estimated that each paper can be read in 30 minutes but that comes from scientists who read super-fast and were familiar with the concept. We realized that the students need more time. (All three are laughing). 
How did the exercise develop your skills?
Rieke: I felt like I could write a paper just by reading so many because I understood how the structure works. After applying the knowledge of the first semesters, I feel very grounded in my methodical knowledge now. 
Jeanne: I really liked the papers related to participation and Indigenous communities. In these months, I understood why Leuphana dedicates one dimension of its sustainability framework to culture. 
How did the work influence your career plans? 
Rieke: I want to learn more about the topics not from a scientific perspective per se but more as an intermediary between science and policy. Also, the work enabled me to get an internship on land degradation. 
Jeanne: We realized that science is hard work which must have been even more stressful for the lead authors who write the final report. On the other side, we put a foot in the door. The release of the SPM was so impressive. I saw the people of whom I read papers and knew: Everything they say is based on strong scientific evidence! Earlier, I thought that science is just the production of knowledge that nobody will interact with. Now, I feel its impact on society. It can be hard to argue for the importance of Indigenous involvement or degrowth for example, but both are mentioned in the report and hence, were approved widely. 
Regarding the content of the report, what are the results of chapter three? 
Berta: We found 50 methods of valuing nature but only 2% are used for political decision-making. Economic methods are most popular which leads to the monetization of ecosystems. We are lacking studies that apply methods that consider more cultural values and more stakeholders, including marginalized communities. Only 2% of all reviewed studies consult stakeholders on valuation findings and only 1% involve stakeholders in every step of the process. 
Jeanne: We found that gap between the availability and use of diverse methods also in science. Many papers highlight the advantages of looking at internal power dynamics of collaborative research such as focus groups, but very few papers reflect those – less than 1%. And only few papers – around 5 % – combine methods and hence, different values of nature. 
Why are interdisciplinary methods so rarely applied?
Berta: First, I think it is because few researchers are able to combine different disciplines which are vital to bringing all pieces of reality together. Second, it might require more resources – not in terms of time or money –, but human resources such as training people and engaging stakeholders. The third reason why economic methods are mainstream is the belief that decisions are based on cost-benefit analysis or economic rationality and that only monetary values can leverage change. The IPBES report shows that this is not true. Many methods, such as storytelling, participant observation, photo-voice or interviews, also assess non-economic values, such as spiritual values, sense of place or stewardship.
Why is it important to involve civil society and Indigenous Peoples in valuing nature?
Berta: From a normative perspective, it is a matter of justice. If we aim to foster a sustainable future, we are responsible for ensuring that all the scientific and political processes are recognizing marginalized voices. Otherwise, we won’t know how they value nature and what will be the true costs of our actions. 
Jeanne: Only by including all people, we can understand the whole picture which is the precondition of good decisions and improves the likelihood of their implementation.
What impacts of the report do you expect?
Berta: To me, the importance of this report is precisely to show that there is a diversity of values of nature that do not feed into the mainstream idea promoted by Western science. In the past, the narratives were that nature has the right to exist, so we set conversation areas, or that nature provides resources to people. The new report brings another worldview: People are part of nature and people value being in a relationship with nature! And that has been approved by 139 Member States of the IPBES.
Why is this new narrative so important?
Berta: If we continue looking at nature as a provider of benefits to people, we will remain in the status quo of considering nature as a provider of resources, which won’t be sustainable. The report helps us understand that we must nurture our relations with nature. So far, tools like environmental impact assessment only include the economic costs of development projects; but we hope that in the future other values, such as spiritual ones or a sense of place, will be part of these assessments.
Jeanne: From that sense, nature is not exchangeable because we cannot trade our relationship for economic goods. Besides, it’s a more positive narrative creating feelings of joy and happiness because we don’t have to sacrifice our health to protect nature but it’s actually good for us. The report shows not only alternative methods but also gives leverage points for action. Of course, it is scientific, but I’d say: It’s easier to understand than other reports and can build a bridge between science and society. 
What is the difference between “nature benefits people” and “people are part of nature”?
Berta: The narratives are not independent. For example, you can go to the forest to pick up mushrooms for dinner, which means that ‘people benefit from nature. By starting with this instrumental motivation, you nurture your relationship with the forest. As you go to the forest more often, you might begin to value its mere existence. Depending on how you look at your relation to nature, you treat it differently. Seeing nature as a means to an end might not lead to stewardship practices. But by including narratives of ‘people are part of nature’ or ‘people are connected with nature’, we can foster the idea of Living in Harmony. This is part of the cosmologies of many Indigenous Peoples or non-Western traditions, such as Buddhism and Ubuntu. 
What is the agency of society after reading the report?
Berta: First, all of us can nurture our own relation with nature. We can find ways to feel connected, like teaching in the forest instead of teaching in seminar rooms. Second, we can try to protect the relational values of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Get informed on the impact of specific products and make decisions like: No, I am not going to consume anything that displaces Indigenous communities from their territory. 
Jeanne: I think many people in Germany feel disconnected from nature and others feel like all they do is cause damage. But our relationship can be reciprocal: Not only contributes nature to us but we can choose to contribute to nature.
Rieke: Our biggest leverage point is changing our individual but also societal narratives about nature because it influences our decisions. The next step is to mainstream these dialogues in policy making.