Imagining transformative biodiversity futures

Imagine a world where and renewable energy is abundant. What might that mean for biodiversity? Or a future where tigers are flourishing in protected areas and conservation is prioritised globally. Are carbon emissions on decline? Is inequality an issue in either future?

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These questions require us to engage our imagination, to think differently about the future consequences of current choices.

In February 2020, 16 experts gathered at The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Lombardy, Italy, to ask these very questions. As we pondered the future of biodiversity, we were largely unaware that the Italian COVID19 crisis was about to reach breaking point. That the world was about to change completely. That week now seems like a lifetime ago. 

The meeting was a capstone event in the Biodiversity Revisited Initiative – a two-year dialogue involving close to 300 experts from 46 countries. Biodiversity Revisited was the first critical assessment of the concept of biodiversity since the term was coined in the 1980s.

In September 2019, participants at the Biodiversity Revisited Symposium hit on the 2020 zeitgeist: justice must be central to biodiversity conservation, climate action, and sustainable development. The research and action agenda we developed calls for the biodiversity community to enhance efforts to contribute to diverse and just futures for life on Earth.

As the events of 2020 unfold, the need for new approaches to research and action is clear. Facts and figures don't motivate change. Creative approaches are needed that enable individuals, and society as a whole to engage their imagination, to think differently and confront the emotional and political challenges of the 21st Century.

Our commentary, ‘Imagining transformative biodiversity futures’, is an effort to promote futures thinking in the biodiversity community: to stimulate debate among those researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and citizens who strive to conserve nature, and the contributions it makes to people. It outlines three possible futures, offering a way of thinking differently about current debates and their implications for how we think about the trade-offs between biodiversity, climate, and sustainable development. We hope it demonstrates that these are inseparable agendas.

Writing this comment was an interesting exercise in pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in a scientific journal. Responses to early drafts that adopted a more creative writing approach ranged from: “You can’t do that in a Nature paper” to “I love it, this is exactly what is needed right now”. We wanted readers to think through the rationales, the assumptions, the hidden narratives - good literature doesn’t reveal everything. But scientific training teaches us to document cause and effect with logic and reason. Some people disliked the futures because there wasn’t one obvious ‘desirable’ choice. We did this because the future will inevitably be a mix of good and bad, and what is good or bad is in the eye of the beholder. Moreover, we cannot choose between worlds: we can only choose between actions, and ways of negotiating trade-offs. In the end, we landed on something that blends science with storytelling, offering a way forwards for those who want to engage with imagination and futuring in their work.

The Biodiversity Revisited Symposium was inspired by the work of Fredrich Hundertwasser, an Austrian artist and architect who abhorred straight lines, whose work challenged the status quo and inspired the imagination. He asked:

“if progress is taking a step forward, what happens if you’re standing on the abyss?”

This commentary is our response:

Pause. Reflect. Imagine. Respond.

Carina Wyborn

Fellow, Australian National University

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