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- Nature-based Solutions (NbS) are highly-discussed in international environmental climate and biodiversity policy spaces. However, NbS can only support transformation if we talk about the concept in ways that reflect, align with, and contribute to transformation.
- The way we frame an NbS idea directly impacts the way we understand both the problem NbS is proposing to solve, and the solution it is suggesting. A narrow framing can result in both a narrow understanding of the problem and a narrow solution.
- If we wish for NbS to be a part of wider societal transformation, it needs to be grounded in the “core frame.” The term needs to be rooted in the interconnectedness between people and nature, and avoid reinforcing an artificial dichotomy between people and nature.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
In the wake of COVID-19, transformative change away from the unsustainable status-quo to effectively address the roots of the climate and biodiversity crises is perhaps more urgent than ever. One proposed transformative pathway rapidly gaining in popularity is Nature-based Solutions.
Nature-based Solutions (NbS) — defined by the IUCN as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits” — have become ubiquitous in international environmental climate and biodiversity policy spaces over the last few years.
The term has been featured in some of the most recent global environmental assessment reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, to the Global Commission on Adaptation. It was one of the key tracks of the 2019 UN Secretary General Climate Action Summit and was featured prominently at COP25. It is also featured in the post-2020 biodiversity framework zero draft in the lead up to the China-hosted Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP15 and will be a key action track for the UK-hosted UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP26.
However, the growing momentum for NbS does not automatically translate to transformative change. In our perspective, we argue that NbS can only support transformation if we talk about the concept in ways that reflect, align with, and contribute to transformation. That’s not happening right now. NbS may hold the potential to support the kind of change that the climate and biodiversity crises demand, but only if we start talking about NbS in a way that emphasizes how people are a part of nature, rather than apart from it.
Why does it matter how we talk about things? The way we talk about, or frame, ideas matters because it influences how we (and how the people we are talking to) understand those ideas. In the case of NbS, the way we frame this idea directly impacts the way we understand both the problem NbS is proposing to solve, and the solution it is suggesting. A narrow framing can result in both a narrow understanding of the problem and a narrow solution. Not only is this not conducive for transformative change, but it can actively divert efforts away from transformative actions. Framing can also influence who is, and who is not, invited to the discussion and able to participate in the development and implementation of solutions. Whose knowledges are we considering when we frame an idea? Whose are we not?
NbS as a term was conceptualized by powerful actors and institutions largely in the Global North and continues to be dominated by them. So, it’s not a surprise that the framing of NbS is largely dominated by the concept of ecosystem services — a Western-centric notion grounded in utilitarian values that describes how ecosystems provide a variety of benefits to people.
While an ecosystem services framing can do a lot of good, such as by helping us understand why nature is important, in practice, it also tends to reinforce an artificial dichotomy between people and nature. By positioning nature as something people “use” and receive benefits from, this framing suggests a false separation between people and nature with benefits only flowing one-way (“natural capital” is another idea that evokes this same narrow understanding). This way of thinking about nature, through an artificial people-nature dichotomy, is not unique to ecosystem services. Rather, it is central to all global, societal, and environmental challenges, including the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and food and water insecurity. This way of thinking is pervasive across Western thought and reflects status-quo power structures rooted in Western worldviews that dominate, and often shape, research agendas and global environmental policy.
Further, this conceptualization is too narrow — there is no one-way relationship between people and nature nor is there a separation between the two. Therefore, it both restricts our ability to envision, design, and implement effective solutions and it restricts the ability of non-Western knowledge-holders to meaningfully participate in the design process. If those promoting NbS at the global scale continue to reinforce this narrative, it will be unable to support transformative change.
So, how should we talk about NbS instead? If we wish for NbS to be a part of wider societal transformation, the term needs to be grounded in the interconnectedness between people and nature — or, as we have called it, NbS needs to be grounded in the “core frame”. The core frame is a way of thinking about and talking about NbS that is rooted in the intertwined, interdependent relationship between people and nature. It is collaborative, inclusive, and diverse, bringing together areas of research, policy, and practice that are often siloed and emphasizing the need for the multiple ways of knowing all three.
We are not suggesting that we do away with an ecosystem service-like frame entirely — an ecosystem services framing has a place, particularly in Western societies, to design, implement, and communicate NbS. Rather, we are emphasizing that the inherent interconnectedness of people and nature needs to be the ground we all stand on when talking about NbS — the core frame as a common foundation upon which we can all build. Doing so will encourage holistic, and therefore more inclusive and effective solutions.
Take research, for example. NbS research that is grounded in the core frame will foster research agendas that are truly interdisciplinary, enabling us to increase our knowledge on the full complexities of people-nature interactions. Or, if we turn to policy, the core frame encourages NbS policies to go beyond short-term, narrow economic assessments by encouraging diverse and holistic perspectives. And in practice, applying the core frame to NbS actions encourage place-based, context-specific approaches that center local values, knowledges, and leadership. If we understand people and nature as intertwined, actions that separate people from the land and disregard the needs and expertise of communities in the name of ‘conservation’ become more untenable.
While interconnected people-nature relationships may be novel for Western thought, they have been long understood by other communities and cultures, including many local and Indigenous communities. A shift towards the core frame is needed to better support collaborative spaces for research, policy, and practice that welcome and amplify local and Indigenous knowledges, worldviews, and values. This, of course, is necessary for societal transformation in general, but is especially important for NbS, which depend on the people who live in and with the landscapes and seascapes NbS occurs within. Inclusive and holistic framing is only one step towards addressing the power and politics that restrict, or actively repress, collaboration and participation in environmental decision-making, but it is an important one.
A lot of ambitions are pinned on this “super year for nature,” to fundamentally shift away from nature’s destruction and towards regenerative paths supporting biodiversity and healthy, resilient landscapes. Yet, we remain in the confines of a global economy structurally dependent on destructive economic growth, where we talk about nature as if it is external and therefore exploitable, rather than intertwined with our fate.
The truth is, if we are to achieve a “super year for nature,” we must reframe our understandings of people-nature relationships towards one where nature and people are not merely viewed as separate and independent, but as intertwined and co-dependent.
If the NbS concept does not transcend the Western tendency to dichotomize people and nature, its potential to support transformative change towards regenerative, healthy landscapes for people and nature will inherently be limited. The core frame we present intends to ensure that the focus of NbS is not dominated by an instrumental ecosystem services framework by emphasizing a more inclusive, holistic common ground where the dynamic relations between people and nature form the basis of our understanding. Framed this way, NbS can support transformative visions of more just and sustainable societies, where people and nature thrive as we find pathways to address the intertwined global challenges of social and environmental justice, biodiversity loss, and the climate crisis.
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