The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Ecology and Conservation Biology category has gone in this eleventh edition to Gretchen Daily and Georgina Mace, two “visionary” ecologists who have developed vital tools facilitating science-based policies “to combat species loss.”
5 February, 2019
At the heart of both women’s approach, the citation adds, is a “recognition of the value of the services provided by nature,” which are habitually taken for granted and, for that reason, excluded from the costs of growth.
“While they have never worked directly together, their impact on global conservation has been strongly synergistic,” the committee continues. “The two are leaders in documenting the alarming declines in global biodiversity in the midst of our planet’s sixth extinction crisis,” and have developed “policy and economic instruments for effective biodiversity protection.”
Daily (Washington DC, United States, 1964) of Stanford University, and Mace (London, United Kingdom, 1953) of University College London, are at pains to point out the gravity of today’s biodiversity crisis: “Over the course of human history, we have gradually eroded both the diversity and the abundance of all the rest of life on Earth,” warns Mace. Not only that, “the loss of species is continuing, with no evidence that it has slowed, so we do need to act on it.”
Daily too insists on this point: “We are destroying so much of nature that we are on a suicidal course. We have to recognize the role that different elements of nature play in sustaining our lives before it is too late.”
That said, the committee perceives in both what chair Emily Bernhardt calls, “the effort to shine a light not just on the difficulties before us but the ways they might be overcome, creating a space for solutions.”
Scientific criteria for the Red List
Mace’s first major contribution was to define the scientific criteria for assigning species to a given category of threat in the famous Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
When the list came into use in the 1960s, it was drawn up on the sole basis of experts’ subjective recommendations. This was before Mace stepped in during the late 1980s early 1990s, coordinating the effort to define ecological parameters that would indicate a relatively high risk of species extinction; factors like “population size, the rate at which the population is declining, area of distribution and the extent to which this area is fragmented,” explained Mace herself on the phone yesterday after hearing of the award.
The Red List was adopted as a yardstick for conservation policies in 2005, and now includes information on 90,000 species.
After her work on the Red List, Mace turned her research attention to the concept of “ecosystem services,” an area where the two laureates’ interests overlap. “One of the reasons that we worry about species going extinct is that the wellbeing of many people worldwide depends on having natural communities of species interacting and ecosystems functioning in a relatively robust way,” says Mace. For without functioning natural systems, “human societies would definitely lose out on benefits that we now take for granted.”
Mace refers here not only to the evident monetary value of services like pollination or natural pest control, but also “value in the broadest sense, that is, the net contribution to human wellbeing.” This means factoring in aesthetic and cultural values, as well as the benefits for our physical and mental health.
Of course there are biodiversity services, Mace admits, that we cannot do without. Services like nutrient cycling or the water cycle “are fundamental processes of the Earth system, and without them life itself would not be possible. So in a sense they have infinite value.”
Nature enters the equation
Daily has made this concept of ecosystem services the basis of an innovative instrument for conservation decision-making: a software program called InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs) that allows the value of the goods provided by nature to be factored in decision-making, and is now in use by organizations in 185 countries.
InVEST compares different environmental scenarios to provide an understanding of the real cost – including all consequences – of draining a wetland or removing the mangrove cover along a coast. The open-source software is free to access and has been developed with experts in multiple areas – including social sciences and economics – under the aegis of the Natural Capital Project co-founded by Daily. The Natural Capital project works with over 250 research groups and collaborators around the world.
As an example of an InVEST user, Daily points to China. Since deforestation caused severe flooding in the late 1980s, the country has spent huge sums on reforesting and restoring vast tracts of land, with resource allocation guided by InVEST.
For Daily, “a key question is how we can switch over to inclusive, green development, so that we secure people and nature and create a future in which the two can thrive.”
“Both Georgina and I have worked to help decision-makers understand and implement science-based policies,” she continues. “The goal is to bring nature’s values into our formal decision-making, in order to protect it.”
Despite the scale of the challenge, both laureates are clear that we cannot give in to despair: “Conserving world nature is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” Mace affirms. “People have developed and evolved by building an intimate relationship with nature, and it is not at all clear that we can survive and thrive on a changing planet unless we take that relationship seriously. The good news is that all the analyses suggest we have the scientific tools necessary to reverse the current biodiversity crisis.”
“We all, as individuals and a society, depend utterly on nature for almost every aspect of our survival, wellbeing and happiness,” Daily concurs. “If we consider what Earth looks like from outer space, it’s that tiny blueish sphere in the deep black cosmos. It’s the only place we know of with life, and it’s life that has created the conditions that allow people to thrive.”