What is environmental degradation and what should we do about it?

It’s currently the UN decade on ecosystem restoration. Everyone it seems has grand plans, huge projects and endless new policies to guide what to do to restore the health of global ecosystems. The biodiversity COP in Montreal in December aims to seal a deal to protect the world’s ecosystems (the post-2020 framework). But in order to ‘restore’ ecosystems, it’s important to understand what ‘degradation’ is and what is being restored to what. This is less straightforward than it seems.

At the invitation of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and as an input into the framing of a large research programme supported by the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) called rather grandiosely Reversing Environmental Degradation in Africa and Asia, I was invited to write a short piece on environmental degradation and its causes.

Having reviewed the project documents and the various materials around ecosystem restoration, I was surprised how (still) little attention was being paid to how to define environmental degradation and to understand the causes. Too often it was assumed that degradation was what happened when people messed up the environment and the solutions offered were basically to control them. While perhaps not so explicit, the spectre of Malthusian thinking was evident, even if given the gloss of participation, inclusion, gender sensitivity and respect for indigenous peoples and communities as part of the requisite contemporary rhetoric.

For me it all had a bit of a rebound feel about it. These were the debates me and colleagues cut our teeth on back in the 1980s, with the early emergence of ‘political ecology’ thinking and the engagement of social science in questions of environmental management. For example, the influential ‘Lie of the Land’ book came out in 1996, now over a quarter of a century ago. The book’s subtitle was ‘challenging received wisdom on the African environment’. The problem is that many of those received wisdoms persist, despite the continuous challenges.

My task was to write a short paper (10 pages – a tough job) that was accessible and to the point. A mildly adapted version is now out as an IDS Working Paper, and the abstract is below.   

This short paper explores the question: what is environmental degradation and what are its causes? It seems an obvious question, but it’s not. The paper explores definitions of environmental degradation (and restoration), challenging simplistic perspectives centred on ‘carrying capacity’. Five explanations of the root causes of environmental degradation widely applied in policy debates and promoted by different actors are identified. These are: (neo-)Malthusian arguments about scarcity and environmental crisis; technological and ecomodernist explanations; perspectives on resource inequality, distribution and development; views that centre on human-nature caring relationships and, finally, arguments for more fundamental structural change and transforming capitalism. Each suggests a very different interpretation of causes and effects with contrasting implications for research design, policy and practice. The paper is aimed at providing a quick overview of the debates, helping to inform discussions about environmental restoration and protection. Too often such debates do not explore underlying causes. While biophysical dynamics are important, environmental degradation – and so restoration – must take account of social, political and cultural dimensions of environmental change.

It is (as ever) a plea for a more integrative approach, where social science thinking can inform our understandings of biophysical processes. It is also a plea to think hard about – and actively deliberate upon – the assumptions (too often hidden or implicit) about what the underlying causes of environmental change are. Only with these understandings can solutions be devised, as root causes can be quite different according to different (social, political, economic, cultural) frames.

I apologise in advance to those who have engaged with these debates over many years like me, as there is nothing new said here at all (and probably rather too many references from myself and other colleagues at IDS and partners). I do hope though that I hid my frustrations that this had to be said all over again, as I aimed to take a deep breath and offer something clear, digestible and useful. Even more, I hope that it makes a difference to the framing of the FCDO research programme – and the many other similar ones that will unfold before 2030 when the ecosystem restoration decade concludes.

Read the paper: What is Environmental Degradation, What Are Its Causes, and How to Respond? (ids.ac.uk)

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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