It all began with a tweet.
The thread presenting the research of our colleagues received 2K likes and 1K retweets. The paper by Leclère et al. (2020) and the brilliant illustration of @IIASAVienna presented a powerful story. The press release of the paper said: By combining the 6 actions listed above in an integrated scenario, modelling shows that biodiversity loss from habitat conversion is halted by 2050 and is followed by recovery. The authors focused on agricultural land-use change, rightly considered the major driver of biodiversity loss. They modeled price fluctuations when demand changes, based on the assumption of a change in global equilibrium between supply and demand, and included reasonable assumptions about growth, environmental responses, and technological progress. Their model predicts how the global system will respond if humanity behaves in a certain way, all other things held constant.
So there we had a beautiful paper, solid research, a powerful story and a world thristy for solutions to the environmental crisis. This was only two years ago, in September 2020. Neil Burgess, one of the contributing authors and Chief Scientist, UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) wrote " This research sets out clear and ambitious actions for governments, businesses, and consumers to take on board as we work together to tackle the global nature crisis". That piece was designed for impact, released in time for the COP and presented to receptive policymakers preparing the post-2020 global biodiversity framework.
And yet our research and experience told us if negociators based their strategies on such model outputs, the commitments they would draft would run the risk of missing the target again. And true enough, despite the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, 11.1 Million hectares of tree cover were lost in the tropics in 2021. Boreal forests went up in flames. "Stubbornly persistent" are the words used by Global Forest Watch to describe forest loss in 2021. Whatever gains are made somewhere – in Indonesia for example, thanks to corporate commitments and government action – are lost somewhere else, with blatant examples being Brazil or Bolivia. Why do we continue failing on the global scale?
We have proposed it is because of a blind spot. What were the actions suggested by Leclere et al. model's reponse? If we can (1) increase production, (2) reduce trade barriers, (3) change consumption patterns, (4) reduce waste, (5) increase protected areas, (6) restore terrestrial habitats and avoid surprises, the curve of biodiversity would bend upwards. Yet, the challenge is that humans have so far shown are collectively unwilling, unprepared, or unable to act like this. Why? Because of the way we make decisions. Agency is the blind spot.
Decision making - a primer
Let us summarize some key elements about decision making process which have been advanced by cognitive and behavioural sciences. In addition to the notion of rational choice and utility maximization—often, explicitly or not, these are the underpinnings in general equilibrium models—traditional economics basically considers two parameters: risk aversion and the time discount rate. Behavioural economics, including prospect theory, includes additional parameters: loss aversion and present bias. We also know valuation is relative, not absolute. Bounded rationality introduced cognitive constrains into our decision processes in the form of finite attention, partial and flawed information and processing capacity—we decide on the basis of what we believe will happen, with limited time to take that decision and limited capacity to handle the complexity of the world. Query theory introduced anchoring, making the point that whichever option we consider first has a sizable advantage of being chosen because its benefits are not inhibited by subsequent queries. Plus, people have multiple, sometimes competing goals—materialistic, self-regarding, and psychologic—and only goals that are active at the time of decision are important. Culture affects activation of certain goals, as well as the choice context. Humans are a tribal species: we share beliefs, and our beliefs influence the reality we perceive. Finally, humans learn best by trial-and-error instead of being told by others, regardless of the source. Consequently, experiencing translates into beliefs.
All these explanations —not intended to be comprehensive—simply serve to illustrate the departures from the rational choice behaviour. They are some of the reasons why the Integrated Assessment Models that outline pathways to bend the deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change curves, fail to represent the self-conscious agency humans can have over system Earth during the Anthropocene. Change in these models has to be forced by the modeler - it comes ex machina, instead of emerging from the collective behaviour of the agents in the models.
To make things worse, we don’t decide based on the facts presented to us. Instead, we select the facts that validate the decisions we have already made. Thus, should target-seeking models - such as the ones that seek to bend the curve of biodiversity - integrate satisfactory representations of human agency, they would continue to remain outside of the scope of consideration by decision-makers not not even themselves convinced of the necessity to change path.
A shortcut to transformation
As said, one tweet, and the discussions were on. Frustrated by the lack of progress in the global response to the climate and biodiversity crisis, we wanted policy makers to change their decisions. Our colleagues from cognitive sciences told us people change their minds when their peers change their minds - we join the band wagon - or when they change their peers for others with different minds. This pathway to transformation requires critical mass. It is what Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion seek to achieve. What if we could identify a short cut? What if we could change people's minds through experience without torching the planet in order to do so? What if we could change the way we decide ?
The initial drafts of our paper stopped there. They were responses to Leclere et al, proposing to build upon what they had identified, raising awareness to the blind spot and proposing to work on it. The comments we received said how do you plan to do that? After several rejections, and based on feedback from the editors, we started developing what our proposed solution would look like.
That is when games made their way into the paper. Some of us, building on the work of the Companion Modelling community of practice, codesign strategy games to help people take environmental decisions. The rules of the game make people's assumptions explicit. When they design and play the game with us, we validate our collective understanding of the problem, and compare expectations. Playing multiple times gives everyone the chance to explore different ways of doing things. Finally, people can take a step back, and start discussing the rules of the game themselves. They can imagine new ones, and test whether they take them where they want to go.
We know how this sounds. Some of us authors have yet to experience these games. It seems nonsense. Preposterous even. The reviewers themselves were very skeptical. One of them wrote :
As I started to read the draft, my initial reaction was deep skepticism; what the article proposes, to use strategy/simulation games as decision-making tools to facilitate difficult decision-making processes, seemed very unrealistic to me. How would scholars be able to convince self-important policy makers to participate in strategic games in the first place?
Yet through the process of rewriting and responding to the comments, bringing forward the cases we had already documented, plugging holes in the argumentation, we presented what reviewers saw as a convincing case on how to make games work. We listed the five ingredients required :
- a game that represents the contraints of the system,
- facilitation to help participants through the journey,
- a convener influential enough to make things happen and confident enough to let them happen,
- participants engaged and vested with power to change the rules
- and finally time to play, learn and design new policies.
Game in progress
There is no time to waste. The sooner the transition happens, the easier it will be. We proposed a Theory of Change to apply this way of taking decisions to the global forest transition. In a explicit connection with the concept of agency, we identified that publishing this perspective in @naturesustainab is part of the pathway to transformation it outlines. It lays out the scientific legitimacy of what we propose. We do not know how many scientific papers are self-referential, but this one certainly is. Meanwhile, while the academic community will discuss the ideas we present here, we are working in the field to build a portfolio of succesful applications. We are collaborating with the Forest Stewardship Council as part of the Focus Forest project to help redesign forest landscape governance in and around Intact Forest Landscapes. We are supporting Birdlife International and their partners to develop an integrated management plan for the islands of Sao Tome and Principe. We work with farmers, local communities, academics, companies and governments to test, improve and promote this way of deciding together - for us and for the planet.
The next challenge is to convince the powerful to join. We know how to make games work. We need conveners. We need architects. It could be you.