A change of perspective

Strategy games developed by ETH Zurich ecologists bring different stakeholders to the table. By shifting people’s perspectives, they create a win-win situation for environmental protection.
This image was created by the AI software Midjourney based on the prompt «sculpture of a massive biodiversity on a pedestal, hyperrealistic sculptures, pastel colours». (Image: Sir Mary / Midjourney)

The CHN building on the ETH Zentrum campus is generally a hive of activity, with researchers writing papers and students working on assignments between lectures. Equally buzzing is the basement of the Department of Environmental System Sciences, where some 50 young bumblebee queens are busy establishing new colonies in a climate chamber. On hand to monitor this process is Sarah Richman, an ecologist from the Plant Ecology group led by Janneke Hille Ris Lambers.

Richman hopes the bumblebees will provide clues about how a changing climate is affecting interactions between species – in this case, between plants and their pollinators. Her plan is to simulate global warming by settling the colonies at different altitudes in the mountains and then tracking their fitness and feeding behaviour. In a warming climate, the flowering period of plants often falls out of sync with their natural pollinators – a phenomenon known as temporal mismatch. “Communities that are more diverse are more resilient to these kinds of negative effects,” says Richman. “The problem is that biodiversity – like so many other things – is in crisis.”

Biodiversity refers to the variety of living organisms at the level of ecosystems, species and genes. Together with abiotic environmental factors such as water, temperature and light, it forms the basis of our ecosystems. “All ecosystems – from the smallest creatures to the global biosphere – are shaped by species and the interactions between them,” says Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management.

Depending on their scale and frequency, human activities can have a significant impact on the dynamics of these biological systems. Yet the resilience of ecosystems is astonishingly high. “It was only recently that we discovered that tropical systems – which were previously regarded as particularly fragile – are actually incredibly resilient to disruption,” says Ghazoul. Even after severe degradation, many tropical forests can regrow within 100 to 150 years, provided some forest patches remain. Most of the biodiversity, soil organisms and nutrient cycles also recover during this time.

The impact of species loss

Nonetheless, scientists remain particularly concerned about long-term global impacts such as climate change. “We simply don’t know the extent to which species and communities can adapt and recover,” says Ghazoul. He suspects that, in some cases, new ecosystems will emerge with a different mix of species. But he argues that we have already lost many important and interesting ecosystems, and that the number of these losses will continue to increase.

“There are certain species that some people won’t care about losing – or won’t notice when they’re gone,” says Ghazoul. “But we should be looking at this as a system.” Biodiversity loss has far-reaching consequences: as species disappear, ecosystem functions degrade. Soil quality may be affected, leading to erosion and nutrient loss. This, in turn, can transform entire river systems, reshaping the habitat of fish and invertebrates. Silt accumulates in rivers and is washed into the ocean, where it smothers and kills coral reefs, while the influx of nutrients encourages the growth of algae. This depletes fish stocks, thus impacting the livelihood of many coastal dwellers. But how much are we willing to support species conservation if it means giving up other benefits? From agriculture and energy production to the infrastructure that improves our quality of life, every decision we make has an impact on the environment. And each of us has our own picture of what the future should look like. “We need to recognise that everyone’s values are equally legitimate, even when they conflict with each other,” says Ghazoul. “As a society, the only way we can negotiate compromises is by showing mutual respect and acknowledging the validity of alternative viewpoints.”

This is the focus of Ghazoul’s work: together with his research group, he develops science-based strategy games that bring different stakeholders to the table. Players are asked to find common goals that take biodiversity and environmental protection into account. “It’s pointless talking about species conservation if that isn’t even on the other party’s radar,” says Ghazoul. “What we need to do instead is to pinpoint aspects of the system that are of interest to all stakeholders, such as producing healthy food.”

All players are equal

The strategy games developed by Ghazoul’s group may seem like simple board games, but they still manage to reflect the complex dynamics of whatever socio-economic system they are designed to represent. Key decision-makers and stakeholders are invited to play out a variety of future scenarios. The game format eliminates power imbalances, allowing all the participants to discuss the issues on equal footing – from the farmer and the head of the local water company to the CEO and the politician.

This seemingly offbeat approach has a number of advantages: “For one thing, we can draw on players’ local knowledge and practical experience to assess and improve our model,” says Ghazoul. And his method also offers opportunities to build trust between environmental activists, scientists and practitioners. “If we’re serious about protecting species, we need to build bridges between the people making key decisions,” he says.

Games do a great job of highlighting this mutual dependency while also showing how action to foster biodiversity can have downsides that shouldn’t be ignored. For example, if a landowner in India improves biodiversity in their forest in order to encourage ecotourism, this may have a negative impact on a neighbouring coffee farm. With more snakes, scorpions and spiders spilling out of the forest, plantation workers may be unwilling to harvest crops, or demand higher wages for doing so. “As the game progresses, these kinds of unexpected consequences provide useful input for political or management decisions,” says Ghazoul.

One of the advantages of the game format is that it allows players to view issues from a different perspective. As part of his six-year project on sustainable palm oil production in the tropics, which was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Ghazoul worked with the governments of Indonesia, Colombia and Cameroon, encouraging politicians to take on the role of smallholders. “One minister told me he had learned more in a single day than during his entire ten years on the palm oil committee,” Ghazoul recalls proudly.

So what can we do to improve species protection? First, we need to know how ecosystems work and how they respond to external influences. “Two things are essential if we want to get the full picture: experimental field studies of species-specific responses, such as those of bumblebees, plus analysis of global data sets,”  Richman. But what’s equally important, says Ghazoul, is to understand how people make the decisions that impact biodiversity and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Further information

Jaboury Ghazoul is Professor of Ecosystem Management in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich.

Sarah Richman works at the Plant Ecology group in the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich.

This text appeared in the 23/03 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.