'The 2010 target will not be met!'

Issue No. 231/232 (Nov/Dec 2009)

While there is cause for hope that an international agreement to prevent biopiracy will be realised in 2010, it is clear that the targeted goal of reducing biodiversity loss by the same date will not be met. Rejecting the idea that new economic models that put price tags on nature will convince policy makers to tackle this goal seriously, Jessica Dempsey contends that the way forward is to bring pressure to bear through solidarity with communities fighting for biodiversity and climate justice.

SCIENTISTS convening in Cape Town in October this year confirmed the obvious: the 2010 target of reducing the rate of biodiversity loss will not be met.1 The target, agreed upon by Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (April 2002) and subsequently reaffirmed by nation-states attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg that same year, aimed 'to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth'.2

In March of 2009, a so-called 'High Level Working Group on the 2010 target and post-2010 targets' took place in Bonn, Germany, organised and paid for by the German Ministry of Environment (Germany is the current president of the Ninth Conference of the Parties (COP 9) to the CBD). The proceedings from this event stated unequivocally: 'The global biodiversity target will not be reached by 2010!' There is no uncertainty here; we have failed to stop, yet again, the ongoing 'monoculturalism' of the planet.3 

Much worse than the bureaucratically lifeless 'reducing the rate of biodiversity loss', evidence coming out of the Stockholm-based Resilience Alliance (recently published in Nature) suggests that the ongoing erosion of biodiversity is undermining ecosystem resiliency. The group of researchers argue that the current rates of species loss take us far beyond what they call the safe operating space for humanity, a situation made even worse by changing climates. Robust genetic, species and ecosystem diversity is critical for ecosystem and ultimately human adaptation.4

Communities all over the world don't need the Resilience Alliance or any intergovernmental panel to tell them that biodiversity is necessary. But in addition, as anthropologist Anna Tsing writes in relation to the Meratus peoples on the island of Borneo, survival is only one part of why they cultivate and create an incredible variety of vegetables: 'they value variety because of the taste, for the sociability it allows, for its sheer exuberance, and because it increases the chances of a bountiful harvest.'5 The sheer exuberance of diverse life: I like the sound of that.

Those of us participating in and around global biodiversity politics should expect to see little intergovernmental exuberance throughout 2010, as we ingloriously celebrate the International Year for Biodiversity, as declared by the United Nations General Assembly. Instead, we should prepare to hear carefully negotiated intergovernmental reasoning and rationales for this failed goal. The upcoming Global Biodiversity Outlook, to be released in May 2010, will be one such high-profile letdown.6 

'Biodiversity is something that suburban white kids care about.but no one else'

And what will politicians, bureaucrats and others say about the failure to hit the 2010 target? Much emphasis, I suspect, will be placed on the lack of understanding about why biodiversity matters. The quote in the subtitle above - that biodiversity is something only suburban white kids care about - was spoken in an interview I conducted as part of my PhD research, with a high-profile scientist working for a large international environmental organisation. For this scientist-conservationist, biodiversity is not valued or cared for on its own in most quarters of the world: 'If something isn't valued why would it be protected?' he asked, rhetorically. 'Why would you have policies and regulations to protect something if it isn't valued?'

Such a view came out of the report of the 'high-level' meeting in Bonn, which states diplomatically that governments failed to 'mobilise significant public support and harness adequate political commitment' for the 2010 biodiversity goal. If only we had focused more on the 'critical role of nature and its ecosystem services in supporting human well-being'. If only we could demonstrate, once and for all, that biodiversity and nature are 'the Treasury of all human beings, especially the Poor'.  

This lack of understanding about biodiversity, some argue, is actually being compounded by the overwhelming focus on climate change in the global environmental world. Renowned ecologist EO Wilson recently made this point in The Guardian: 'We don't hear as much public concern, protestation and plans by political leaders to save the living environment. It doesn't get anything like the attention the physical environment has.'7

But the lack of understanding about 'why biodiversity matters' is not only a communication problem. The 700 scientists and policy-makers gathered for the 2nd Diversitas Conference (Cape Town, October 2009) produced a statement suggesting that the failure to stem biodiversity loss is also rooted in a lack of scientific knowledge about what it is that biodiversity does for ecosystems (and thus humans), and that the way forward lies in more scientifically based assessments. The statement advocates for the establishment of an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)-like science panel at arm's length from political negotiations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), or what EO Wilson has dubbed 'the Barometer of Life'.

Valuing nature by internalising externalities

The crux of the problem is often stated as follows: no one cares about biodiversity, no one knows what it is, or why it matters. This kind of thinking has spurned a massive re-framing of biodiversity in terms of ecosystem services, towards focusing on how biodiversity contributes to human well-being. Biodiversity provides us with the matter of life, and underpins all we do; this includes contributions as a direct source of 'goods' (i.e. varieties of food stocks, genetic resources) but also contributions to general ecosystem functioning or health, upon which we depend. 

This re-framing is part of a widespread movement to value biodiversity, but these are likely not your grandma's values. As the Executive Secretary of the CBD, Ahmed Djoghlaf, stated in a meeting with civil society just prior to COP 9 in Bonn (May 2009), 'the largest corporation in the world is not Walmart.. It is nature'. Just like Walmart delivers American consumers the 'stuff of life' at cutthroat prices (with equally cutthroat labour policies), so too does biodiversity - we just don't recognise it as such.

Much time and attention is now focused on revealing this value, to understand especially the economic value of biological diversity. To this end, policy responses like The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) are in progress. The initiative came out of the 2007 G8+5 Environment Ministers Meeting in Potsdam, Germany8, and aims to develop a Nicholas Stern-like report for biodiversity, attaching dollar values to biodiversity. The project frames the problem of biodiversity very carefully: 'At the heart of this complex problem is a straightforward and well-recognised issue in standard microeconomics. The lack of market prices for ecosystem services and biodiversity means that the benefits we derive from these goods (often public in nature) are usually neglected or under-valued in decision-making.'9

So the mantra goes: if only we had the right numbers, or better models or tools to show people (especially leaders) what they are doing to themselves. As the TEEB website states, reciting the slogan of 1980s-era business management gurus, 'you cannot manage what you cannot measure.' We cannot combat the 'economic invisibility' of biodiversity, or prepare a pathway for internalising the costs of its degradation, if we cannot recognise or quantify them. Once we do, steps can be made towards internalising these costs into our economic systems, so that we fully account for the cost of any good or service. This is highlighted in a recent TEEB report: 'The full cost recovery principle means that the costs of providing products or services (including environmental costs) are assigned to the user or beneficiary. Consumers thus pay the full cost of what they consume.'10 Going further, in the press surrounding the same report, the study leader Pavan Sukhdev claimed that investments to protect ecosystems can be worth 25 to 100 times more in benefits from the natural services they provide.11

Demonstrating that nature provides services, and that investments in nature and biodiversity conservation therefore yield high rates of return may well be part of the solution. An economy where all the social and ecological costs of doing business are incorporated is a laudable goal, and it would likely lead to radical changes in how business is conducted. It could transform the shape of economic systems and market transactions, leading to, among other things, 'reducing the rate of biodiversity loss'. And, even better (some argue), being market-oriented, it is a strategy that lends itself to building alliances and relationships beyond the usual Birkenstock-wearing, natty-haired environmental groups, towards the profit-seeking private sector and governments. 

But getting those pesky decision-makers to actually internalise the full cost of goods and services produced and provided by nature is like trying to get a Goldman Sachs executive to give up his god-given gazillion-dollar bonus - incredibly difficult. 

A brief diversion to illustrate: a couple of days ago an article appeared in a local news source. It talked about a group of researchers at my current place of study, the University of British Columbia, examining investments in early childhood education. The authors noted that compassionate reasons for spending public funds on vulnerable children only go so far, and went on to make a strong economic argument for investing $3 billion in early childhood social programmes. They argue, based on longitudinal studies, that this investment will  increase  the  gross  domestic product  by  20%  over  the  next  six decades. 

These kinds of arguments and numbers about early childhood investments are not new. But despite the strong research basis - research much tighter than that around biodiversity and ecosystem services, where experts admit that simply measuring biodiversity alone (nevermind putting a dollar value on it) is a huge challenge12 - it is still unlikely that the government of Canada will choose to invest $3 billion of its revenues in this way. And for many countries in the global South, it is much more than a problem of preferences, as they simply cannot pay.

Serious limitations

What I am getting at here is perhaps simple: there are serious limitations to the nature-as-Walmart approach, both for explaining why biodiversity loss is continuing, and for guiding solutions. More information and models about how biodiversity underpins all we do does not equal social change or political action.

This is partially because humans, unlike elegant economic/ecological models, are not rational, efficiency-seeking individuals. The 'decision-makers' that ecologists and economists so desperately want to convince are not necessarily going to be swayed by such models; perhaps they have a quasi-ideological disagreement with government intervention (i.e. not the role of the state to intervene in 'family matters' of early child care), or more likely, they find themselves in political/cultural systems that incentivise short-term thinking (i.e. political cycles of re-election, personal gain).

But perhaps the most intractable problem can be learned from the situation in the global South: the problem of who will pay for 'internalising externalities' of biodiversity loss. Our economies do not simply fail to value or count biodiversity; they are also the manifestation of hundreds of years of uneven development, of the centralisation of capital into (very few) states, and into the hands of Northern shareholders and consumers.

I can already hear the irritation from some quarters: stop the Marxist-twinged rant, already! But recognising these entrenched interests in the current economic architecture is an incredibly practical problem that even the greenest free-marketers must grapple with. The TEEB authors carefully recognise this difficulty facing the implementation of 'full cost accounting', as 'such policies change the distribution of benefits and costs between different groups'.13 Internalising externalities not only involves increased knowledge or better models about those externalities; it involves political interventions in economic systems where those externalities create benefit for some, at the expense of others. Those benefits accrue not only to corporate shareholders, but to millions of consumers, all over the world (mostly in the North). The economistic solution, while perhaps a 'straightforward and well-recognised issue in standard microeconomics', is one that conveniently forgets (or ignores) uneven distributions of political power: it fails to account for the ugly, sticky, dirty mess of our political economies, and the difficulty of moving them elsewhere.       

The current impasse around climate change, with its sophisticated climate and economic models, is another depressing example of this. As David Roberts of Grist magazine writes in relation to the horribly inadequate US climate bill, the core problem is not the type of climate policy, but rather the power of the fossil fuel lobby: 'Reduce that power and any climate policy gets better.'14

Finding hope in movements

Developing better understanding of how biodiversity underpins healthy ecosystems is part of the way forward. So, perhaps, is obtaining some solid numbers estimating how much biodiversity is worth in economic terms. But in many ways, these are the easiest tasks ahead. What matters more, I argue, is a strategy for breaking these patterns of unevenness, the patterns of centralised power and control, the everyday market transactions that so clearly benefit some over others, while eviscerating biodiversity.

In Canada, it is indigenous First Nations and local communities working in solidarity with some environmental NGOs, human rights advocates, lawyers, and even a bank, that present the finest and most promising actions against biodiversity loss and climate change. In Northern Alberta, home of the famed, humongous and entirely backward 'Tar Sands' development, a tiny First Nation - the Beaver Lake Cree - are enacting a Supreme Court (the highest court in Canada) challenge against all of the companies in the Tar Sands, including Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil. The legal challenge seeks to enforce recognition of the Beaver Lake Cree's treaty rights and to protect their environment, increasingly riddled with oil wells, criss-crossed with roads and seismic lines and emptied of wildlife. This case is supported by a Canadian-based law firm, but is also receiving financial support from the Manchester-based Cooperative Financial Services.

In the Sacred Waters of Northern British Columbia, the birthplace of three great salmon rivers, the Tahltan people, who have hunted and trapped in the Sacred Headwaters for hundreds of years, engaged in blockades in order to stop Royal Dutch Shell (the controversial partner of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) from drilling for coalbed methane.15 The campaign against Shell is built on a broad-based and growing grassroots campaign across the country, including the Tahltan, local organisations, and regional and national environmental groups.16 Based on this amazing organising, Shell has postponed its drilling plans, and the case is now in the court system.

Both the Tahltan and Beaver Lake Cree are considered economically poor communities in Canada, communities still feeling the brunt of colonial relations and land theft, communities in need of so-called 'economic development'. But they are not content to pursue economic development or growth at all costs. They are guided by other ways of living. What they demand is redistribution, land rights and, at the core, space to carry out their own relationships with each other, the land and with other creatures. 

Yes, biological diversity is intensely undervalued. But the way forward will not be found in new economic models or gigantic price tags on Nature that will somehow magically convince decision-makers to act otherwise. (It will not be found at Walmart either.) Movements for biological diversity already exist, despite widespread poverty, and the fiercest and most necessary ones are most definitely not driven by suburban white kids. As Anna Tsing writes, nature or biological diversity is not something only appreciated in the privileged West, it is 'not just an imposition of metropolitan scientists', and concerns for it are not always second to development. The way forward - to break the entrenched and ever-so-uneven distributions of 'costs and benefits' - is in solidarity with these communities, with social movements for both biodiversity and climate justice.

My dream for the post-2010 target involves a decade of solidarity building, a reorienting of civil society resources away from corporate alliances and towards community-based struggles: putting the fear of citizen action in the heart of destructive developments, working alongside local communities to support their alternative visions of land use and development, and learning to have exuberant relationships with other forms of life.

Jessica Dempsey works alongside all kinds of civil society groups in her work with the CBD Alliance ( She is a Trudeau Scholar at the University of British Columbia, where she studies biodiversity politics in the Department of Geography. Contact her at


1          'World Will Miss 2010 Target To Stem Biodiversity Loss, Experts Say',, Oct 14, 2009

2          See COP 6 Decision VI/26,

3          For the full report of this 'high-level' meeting, see

4          Rockstrom et al. 2009. 'A safe operating space for humanity', Nature 461, 472-475,

5          Tsing, A. 2005. Friction: an ethnography of global connection. Princeton University Press, page 167.

6          Drafts of the Global Biodiversity Outlook are available for review; see to receive a copy.

7          Randerson, J. 2009. 'Biodiversity loss is Earth's "immense and hidden" tragedy, Darwin's "natural heir" warns'. The Guardian, Nov 20.

8          The following wording was agreed to at Potsdam: 'In a global study we will initiate the process of analysing the global economic benefit of biological diversity, the costs of the loss of biodiversity and the failure to take protective measures versus the costs of effective conservation.'

9          TEEB. 2009. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for National and International Policy Makers - Summary: Responding to the Value of Nature, 2. Reports at

10         See note 9, page 25.

11         See De Souza, M. 2009. 'Protecting environment worth trillions to economy', UN report, Nov 14.

12         See note 9, page 14.

13         See note 9, page 29. 

14         Roberts, D. 2009. 'Annie Leonard misses the mark in her new video, "The Story of Cap-and-Trade".' Grist, Dec 1.

15         Coalbed methane (CBM) is a form of natural gas extracted from coal beds.

16         For an inspiring timeline of events, see

*Third World Resurgence No. 231/232, November-December 2009, pp 29-32