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Why language matters for conservation

Biodiversity loss and climate change are the biggest crisis of our time. Moving away from a purely technocratic framing and its alleged solutions can help us direct precious resources, time and energy to where it is actually needed most.

Biodiversity loss and climate change are the biggest crisis of our time. The implications are profound for human lives, security and well-being, not just in the Global South, but increasingly in Europe as well.

In Germany, for instance, the total flying insect biomass has declined by 75 per cent in just 27 years, putting the functioning of ecosystems and agricultural food production at risk. This summer’s heavy floods in Western Germany not only illustrated the danger of a destabilised climate, but also sparked a debate on the destruction of natural forests and their role in mitigating such extreme weather events.

The solution to this crisis will require what scientists have called a “fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values”. It requires challenging prevailing assumptions about how we think, speak and work. The conservation sector must also scrutinise its many initiatives and partnerships: are they helping or hindering the radical changes required for a more just and healthy society? 

The concept of political framing can illuminate the underlying values and assumptions in conservation discourses, as well as their implications for action and decision-making. This, in turn, can help distinguish the initiatives contributing to transformative change from those reinforcing the status quo.

The corporate framing of biodiversity loss

The recently formed Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) is an excellent example of the way the financial and corporate sectors frame biodiversity loss.

The TNFD brings together financial institutions and companies to “deliver a framework for organisations to report and act on evolving nature-related risks.” At the TNFD’s launch event, panellists talked about the ecological crisis as though it was a purely technical problem, which hasn’t been solved yet because corporations and investors haven’t been able to adequately measure the environmental risks and impacts of their operations. Nature must be assigned a cash value to become visible in economic and financial operations, because only that which can be measured can also be managed.

Describing nature as natural capital to be managed in habitat banking or ecosystem accounting schemes perpetuates a purely technocratic, reductionist logic and worldview.

According to this logic, investors and corporations will change their behaviours and redirect investments to make them “nature positive” as long as they have a methodology to measure and account for their impacts on the environment. It is questionable, however, whether such a framework will do the trick.

A recent investigation by Urgewald and the Rainforest Action Network shows that none of the major global financial institutions has adopted the necessary policies to curb carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Their investments continue to fund forest clearance, mining, polluting industries and agricultural monocultures with well-documented and devastating environmental impacts.

Slogans like “Making nature count” or making nature “visible,” suggest that nature currently neither counts nor is visible. Only through an economic lens can nature be seen, valued and accounted for. But the idea that nature needs a price directs attention towards purely technical issues around economic accounting and ignores essential questions about interests, power structures and the system itself.

The logic and language of financial management depoliticises biodiversity loss and reduces conservation to mere resource management that just needs to quantify, measure and bank its assets. Describing nature as natural capital to be managed in habitat banking or ecosystem accounting schemes perpetuates a purely technocratic, reductionist logic and worldview. We are not talking about living beings and a complex web of life, but about stocks and shares.

Conservationists often embrace this language in the attempt to make the case for conservation and find joint solutions that work for different actors. However, does this alter our own positions and behaviours in the end?

The solutions offered by an economic framing raise the question of whether the priority is really conservation or simply to minimise risks and uncertainties for businesses to maximise profit. The “business case for biodiversity” also places the burden of proof on conservationists. People who care about nature need to justify their beliefs and actions, while those who don’t care don’t have to convince anyone at all. But if protection needs constant justification, then destruction is the default.

Making nature bankable, measurable and comparable also makes her replaceable. Take biodiversity offsetting, for example. If a company wants to build a highway through an important ecosystem with rare species, then it can “offset” the damage done in one place by protecting or restoring a “comparable amount of biodiversity” somewhere else.

Again, the focus here is the underlying logic, not so much on the usefulness of this practice in a specific case. We are currently building, producing and consuming far more than is needed for human well-being, with devastating impacts on nature. The real task is to determine what is essential infrastructure and what is not. Offsetting implies that this type of development is inevitable and our only option is to make it less harmful.  

Language can guide the way

The values embedded in this language have justified and enabled the destruction of nature for centuries. If we are serious about transformative change, then we need to talk about the system itself and not reduce biodiversity loss to just a problem of accounting. But what does that mean in practice? Time to halt the ecological and climate crisis is getting dangerously short, and the funding and political will to fix it is nowhere in sight.

We need to set clear priorities and focus on what has already proven to be most effective. Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) across the world already demonstrate what “living in harmony with nature” actually looks like (e.g. in the Territories of Life: 2021 Report).

IPLCs govern at least one quarter of the global land area which coincides with around 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity and their important role in maintaining biodiversity is increasingly recognised; however, they are facing growing violence and pressure from resources extraction, mining and infrastructure development.

Recognising and protecting their territorial rights and knowledge, including their rights to self-determination, and supporting their collective governance systems can be the basis for achieving global biodiversity, climate and sustainable development targets.

However, rather than supporting and promoting actual policies in that regard, people are busy trying to figure out nature-related disclosures for the finance sector. Framing our relationship with nature as an “asset management problem” with “market-led” solutions has had mixed results at best, with little “measurable” positive impact on nature.

Moving away from the purely technocratic framing and its alleged solutions that are entirely detached from local realities can open up new spaces to focus on what is really important and direct precious resources, attention, time and energy accordingly.

Christiane Röttger is senior manager of Biodiversity at adelphi, an independent think tank and leading consultancy on climate, environment and development. She manages various projects in the field of biodiversity and nature conservation. With more than ten years of experience in international species conservation and biodiversity policy, her work focuses on the development and implementation of regional and international programs for the protection of endangered species.

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