Bending the Curve – An introduction by Katrin Böhning-Gaese (Co-Creation Science)

Bending the Curve: How to Achieve a Turnaround in Conservation?
Co-Creation Science: Katrin Böhning-Gaese

Franziska Nori and I met at a workshop on the New Senckenberg Natural History Museum in early 2019. Franziska deeply impressed me with her speech. She said “art can open up new perspectives” and ideally “creates ‘sublime moments’ that have transformative character”. Since then, we have maintained close communication, especially regarding the exhibition “Trees of Life”, developed in collaboration with Senckenberg nature museum, and the exhibition “The Intelligence of Plants”. Why do we collaborate? Why do I, as a biodiversity researcher, find it exciting and meaningful to collaborate with the director of an art institution? And what role do “sublime moments” play?

Biodiversity on our planet is under dramatic threat. In the first Global Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), published in 2019, it was scientifically established that of the approximately 8 million species on Earth, 1 million species are threatened with extinction. There is a particularly high level of endangerment with over 60 percent of palm fern species, 40 percent of amphibian species (such as frogs, toads and salamanders), and almost 40 percent of coral species. Furthermore, the populations of many species are declining dramatically. The Living Planet Index, which reflects species’ abundance, shows a decline of over 60 percent over a 50-year period. In Germany and Europe, we observe declines primarily in species of agricultural landscapes, i.e. fields, meadows and pastures, with a nearly 60 percent decrease in bird species over a 37-year period.

In addition to species, also natural ecosystems are disappearing and being converted into human-used and often degraded ecosystems. Half of all ecosystems have already been significantly altered. In the last 30 years, the extent of natural forests has decreased by an area equivalent to twelve times the size of the Federal Republic of Germany. In Germany, only 4 percent of previously extensive peatlands remain as conservation areas.

Changes in biodiversity have consequences for nature’s contributions to people. Biodiversity is the foundation of human life: almost everything we humans use is made available through biodiversity. Material contributions from nature include air to breathe, clean drinking water, food, building materials, energy, fibres and medicines. Regulatory contributions include pollination, seed dispersal, natural forest regeneration, climate regulation and the formation of fertile soils. Finally, biodiversity provides a wide range of non-material contributions: beauty, relaxation, recreation and mental health, spirituality, home and identity. The loss of biodiversity also affects the contributions of nature. According to scientific consensus (IPBES Global Assessment Report 2019), all but three of the 27 subcategories of nature’s contributions are declining; the only contributions increasing are areas for food and animal feed cultivation, energy crops (e.g. oil palm) and materials (e.g. cotton). Ecosystems are clearly managed for short-term human productivity.

What are the causes of biodiversity loss? There are five major direct drivers, the so-called “Big Five” of biodiversity loss. First is land use, primarily agriculture. Agricultural land is currently being massively expanded, especially in tropical countries, leading to the destruction of natural ecosystems such as forests, savannas, grasslands and wetlands. In Germany and Europe, the decline of species in agricultural landscapes is mainly due to intensive agricultural practices, including high use of fertilizers and pesticides, large-scale monocultures and the disappearance of hedges, trees, streams and fallow land. Second is the exploitation of species, mainly affecting the oceans; over 35 percent of commercially exploited fish stocks are currently overfished. In addition, climate change, pollution and the introduction of non-native, so-called “exotic” species are significant drivers.

However, behind these direct drivers are indirect or deep drivers that cause changes in land use and species exploitation. These include demographic and socio-cultural changes, such as population growth, increasing per capita consumption of natural resources and a shift toward a more meat-based diet. Other factors include economic and technological changes, changes in institutions and governance, conflicts and epidemics. These factors include increasing prosperity and the institutional and technological capabilities for global supply chains.

From a scientific perspective, it is clear that the loss of biodiversity and its contributions to humanity are already affecting the health, wealth and well-being of many people today. With further declines in biodiversity and its contributions to people, an even larger population is at risk. But what can we do to initiate a turnaround, to halt further biodiversity loss, and ideally, promote biodiversity again?

At the forefront of measures are international agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, established at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and subsequently signed by 196 nations. At the 15th Conference of the Parties in Montreal at the end of 2022, known as the World Biodiversity Summit, new targets were agreed upon. These include the goal to effectively protect 30 percent of land and marine areas by 2030, restore 30 percent of degraded land and marine areas by 2030 and promote sustainable land and forest management and fisheries. The great strength of these agreements is that they are international agreements that nearly all countries on earth have agreed to. Unfortunately, there are no legal instruments to enforce these goals: The International Court of Justice does not address these issues, and there is no world police force. Nevertheless, all countries on earth have a moral obligation to implement these goals, and it is the responsibility of civil society and the media to demand their enforcement.

International science-policy interfaces also play a central role in biodiversity conservation. The relevant international interface between science and policy for biodiversity is the aforementioned IPBES. It is the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was established many years ago for the topic of climate. The IPBES assesses the state of knowledge and action options for individual world regions and also globally. A key finding of previous reports is that the protection and promotion of biodiversity cannot be achieved through isolated measures. This means that the establishment of protected areas or the reduced use of pesticides, while good and necessary measures, will not be sufficient to preserve biodiversity. Instead, a socio-ecological transformation is demanded, defined as a fundamental system-wide transformation of society as a whole, including politics, law, economy, science and civil society (IPBES Global Assessment Report 2019).

In addition, there are thousands of scientific publications that have examined the impact of humans on biodiversity and the consequences for ecosystems and people. Biodiversity models play a particularly important role in these publications. These models work similarly to the more well-known climate models: they are parameterized and validated with existing data and established relationships, then used to create alternative future scenarios. These scenarios offer alternative futures that predict a positive development, stabilization or further decline of biodiversity depending on the measures taken. A particularly comprehensive and ambitious study by David Leclère and co-authors from 2020 concludes that with a package of three sets of measures, we can stop the decline of biodiversity by 2030 and achieve an increase in biodiversity by 2050. The packages of measures are: 1. large, well-managed protected areas plus ecosystem restoration, 2. productive but sustainable agriculture and forestry, and more trade, and 3. changes in our consumption and dietary behaviour toward less food waste and, for countries like Germany, a more plant-based diet. This study shows, an increase in biodiversity is possible! This is very positive news. We need positive images and stories for the future.

When addressing changes and measures, it is helpful to distinguish between shallow and deep leverage points in the system (Meadows 1999, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System). Shallow leverage points address parameters, such as the toxicity of pesticides. Deep leverage points address thought patterns and paradigms on which the system is based. Measures taken to protect biodiversity have so far focused more on shallow leverage points, such as establishing protected areas. Measures targeting deep leverage points, on the other hand, are very rarely applied. Admittedly, these deep leverage points are very difficult to access. Nevertheless, approaches to deep leverage points, thought patterns and paradigms have enormous potential to bring about truly deep and sustainable, long-term changes toward better human-nature relationships.

This is where art comes in (among other things). The experience of “sublime moments” can shake a person’s thought patterns so deeply that it can create a willingness to fundamentally question and perhaps even change their own attitudes, preferences and behaviours. This is the reason (or at least one of the reasons) why I collaborate with Franziska Nori as a biodiversity researcher. Deep leverage points in a system are virtually inaccessible to natural scientists, but they may (perhaps) be reached through art.

However, initiating a turnaround in the conservation of biodiversity remains a huge challenge. The design of socio-ecological transformations is complex and complicated. The good news, however, is that everyone can contribute to the necessary transformations. To make the number of possible measures manageable and concrete, Friederike Bauer and I have developed a catalogue of ten measures in our book Vom Verschwinden der Arten: Der Kampf um die Zukunft der Menschheit  (Böhning-Gaese and Bauer 2023, Vom Verschwinden der Arten), which we consider to be the ten most effective based on our collective experience. Each measure addresses different sectors of society:

  1. Protect 30 percent of the Earth, with 30 percent of that under strict protection by 2030 (politics and conservation). By 2030, at least 30 percent of the Earth’s surface should be effectively protected (not just on paper), up from the current 17 percent on land and 8 percent in the ocean; 30 percent of that, meaning 10 percent of the total area, should have minimal human intervention – as wilderness. These areas can then serve as arks of biodiversity for the future. …
  2. Globally increase the share of organic farming to 25 percent by 2030 (politics and agriculture). Organic farming promotes biodiversity. Currently, it accounts for around 9 percent in Europe and only 1.5 percent worldwide. Expanding organic farming, both in Europe and in the global South, benefits the health of nature, crop plants and animals and therefore, human health.
  3. Gradually reduce harmful subsidies for nature by at least $500 billion annually by 2030 (politics). Currently, exorbitant sums are spent on promoting fossil fuels, environmentally damaging agriculture and fisheries. These funds must be redirected to support biodiversity-friendly measures such as rewilding and organic farming, and to mitigate social hardships. …
  4. Establish global reporting requirements for companies and the financial sector regarding their impact on biodiversity by 2030 (politics and businesses). Such reporting requirements make the negative (and positive) impact of the economy on nature visible and measurable. This is likely to lead to a change in business thinking, a redirection of investments and new business models. Because: There is no business on a dead planet.
  5. Increase the share of Green Bonds financing conservation from the current 3 percent to 30 percent by 2030 (financial sector). Currently, Green Bonds primarily focus on climate protection, such as wind and solar power. While this is fundamentally important, we need more financial products that channel funds into the preservation of nature, biodiversity conservation or organic farming.
  6. Radically reduce meat consumption to a maximum of 300 grams per person per week, with a maximum of 100 grams of red meat, preferably from pasture-raised animals (everyone). Currently, around 70 percent of arable land worldwide is used for animal feed, rather than directly serving human nutrition. Reducing meat consumption is a crucial step to free up land for biodiversity or human nutrition, even with further population growth. …
  7. Minimize food waste as much as possible (everyone, restaurants, businesses). Europe alone wastes 173 kilograms of food per person per year, roughly half a kilogram per day. Minimizing this practice saves land for cultivation. It also helps discover the value of food, is enjoyable and is easy on the wallet.
  8. Spend fifteen minutes a day or two hours a week engaging with nature (everyone). Greening the balcony, growing vegetables, taking walks in the park, going into the woods, discussing herbs with others, etc. This engagement helps develop or maintain a closer relationship with nature and a better understanding of its diverse values. You only protect what you love, and you only love what you know. Moreover, it promotes relaxation, well-being and demonstrable health benefits.
  9. Green cities wherever possible; balconies, roofs, sidewalks, courtyards, etc. (municipal administrations, everyone). This benefits biodiversity, cools urban areas and enhances our health and well-being. Diversity is important here too: trees and shrubs with flowers and berries instead of thuja, meadows instead of lawns, deadwood instead of borders – and it can all look a little untidy.
  10. Media, films, books, exhibitions and educational materials must seriously engage with nature, neither exaggerating nor ignoring it (journalists, educators and artists). The subject of nature must be integrated into the politics and economics sections of newspapers, not just relegated to the “Miscellaneous” or “Panorama” sections. It is about more than koalas, gorillas and tigers: it is about connections, ecosystems and nature as a foundation of existence. This requires engaging stories and images that reach people in various ways and remind us that every individual matters (Böhning-Gaese and Bauer 2023, Vom Verschwinden der Arten).

We can thus see that art has the potential to contribute to the necessary socio-ecological transformations; and maybe it even has a duty to do so?

Katrin Böhning-Gaese, Director Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre