Conservation Compromises: The MAB and the Legacy of the International Biological Program, 1964–1974
Journal of the History of Biology
Conservation Compromises: The MAB and the Legacy of the International Biological Program, 1964-1974
SIMONE SCHLEPER 0
0 Department of History Maastricht University Maastricht The Netherlands
This article looks at the International Biological Program (IBP) as the predecessor of UNESCO's well-known and highly successful Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB). It argues that international conservation efforts of the 1970s, such as the MAB, must in fact be understood as a compound of two opposing attempts to reform international conservation in the 1960s. The scientific framework of the MAB has its origins in disputes between high-level conservationists affiliated with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) about what the IBP meant for the future of conservation. Their respective visions entailed different ecological philosophies as much as diverging sets of political ideologies regarding the global implementation of conservation. Within the IBP's Conservation Section, one group propagated a universal systems approach to conservation with a centralized, technocratic management of nature and society by an elite group of independent scientific experts. Within IUCN, a second group based their notion of environmental expert roles on a more descriptive and local ecology of resource mapping as practiced by UNESCO. When the IBP came to an end in 1974, both groups' ecological philosophies played into the scientific framework underlying the MAB's World Network or Biosphere Reserves. The article argues that it is impossible to understand the course of conservation within the MAB without studying the dynamics and discourses between the two underlying expert groups and their respective visions for reforming conservation.
International Biological Program; Max Nicholson; Raymond Dasmann; International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Man and the Biosphere Program
Abbreviations: IBP: International Biological Program; IBP/CT: IBP’s
Section for the Conservation of Terrestrial Communities; ICSU: International
Council of Scientific Unions; IUCN: International Union for the Conservation
of Nature and Natural Resources; IUPN: International Union for the
Protection of Nature; MAB: Man and the Biosphere Program (of UNESCO);
SCIBP: Special Committee for the International Biological Program; UNCHE:
For decades, science-based nature conservation, concerned with the
ecological study of natural and modified systems, has been at the core of
international nature protection efforts. One of the programs that can be
said to epitomize this approach is the well-known and highly-successful
Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB). The MAB, established in
November 1971 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has been described as ‘‘pioneering’’
in its interdisciplinary and integrated approach to conservation, and as
one of the first organizations to truly ‘‘put sustainable development into
practice’’ (Kanie et al., 2013, p. 26; Ishwaran, 2012, p. 95; German
MAB National Committee, 2005, p. 178). Within its first ten years, the
MAB already involved over one hundred countries and more than ten
thousand researchers working in several thousand research and training
projects. Today, the MAB continues with 631 nature reserves in 119
countries, representing the world’s ‘‘major biogeographical regions’’
(UNESCO, 1996, 2013, 2015). This World Network of Biosphere
Reserves has become UNESCO’s main instrument for conservation and
serves as a significant platform for research, education, monitoring and
The MAB was however not the first international conservation
program to focus on the systematic protection of the world’s
ecosystems. Already ten years prior to the MAB’s initiation, the International
Biological Program (IBP) had called for a world network of reserves
and in fact many former IBP conservationists moved into the MAB
after the IBP’s closure in 1974. Given these continuities, it is surprising
how little research has been done on the MAB’s intellectual origins and
its links to the IBP’s conservation efforts. In contrast, historiographical
accounts have usually stressed the innovative novelty of the MAB’s
approach to conservation, for which the IBP was little more than a
spark of inspiration (Chester, 2006, p. 36, Golley, 1993, p. 163,
McCormick, 1991, p. 18, Dyer and Holland, 1988, p. 635; e.g. Di Castri
et al., 1981, p. 52).1 However, a closer look at the conservation work of
the IBP and contemporary controversies around it reveals its rich, so far
neglected intellectual legacy for subsequent internationally organized
This article argues that the scientific framework of the MAB must in
fact be understood as a compound of two opposing attempts to reform
international conservation through the IBP. In the 1960s, high-level
conservationists affiliated with the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) disputed about
what the IBP meant for the future of conservation. One group of IUCN
experts around the British conservationist Max Nicholson pushed for
the scientific recognition of their expertise by linking conservation to the
emerging field of systems ecology, using the IBP as a vehicle. At about
the same time, a second group began to form at the executive center of
IUCN, around the new Director General Gerardo Budowski and his
Senior Ecologist Ray Dasmann. In contrast to Nicholson and his
disciples, this second group based their notion of environmental expert
roles on a more descriptive and local ecology of resource mapping as
practiced by UNESCO. Their respective visions entailed different
ecological philosophies as much as diverging sets of political ideologies
regarding the global implementation of conservation. I demonstrate
that the conservation methods that were finally implemented within the
MAB have to be understood and studied as a compound blend of the
scientific and political conceptions of conservation as brought forth by
the two groups. On a general level, then, the article makes a case for
studying environmental programs not as standalone achievements or
successes. Rather, they should be regarded as carriers of components of
diverse intellectual frameworks.
With its focus on controversies and negotiated scientific approaches
in conservation, the article contributes to existing literature in both the
history of nature protection and the history of science in the second half
of the twentieth century. Traditionally, the historiography of
conservation of this period has focused on single organizations and
biographies of conservationists and has paid little attention to
crossorganizational discourses at the international level (compare
Schwarzenbach, 2011; Dasmann and Jarrell, 2000; Holdgate, 2003, 1999, p.
289; Holdgate, Bardeleben, 1983). The few works that have looked at
1 Holdgate (1999) provides a more nuanced view of the end of the IBP and the
beginning of the MAB. However, he refrains from discussing possible intellectual
continuities or breaks altogether (e.g. p. 96).
the history of ecology in conservation have focused on national
academic schools and traditions (e.g. Sheail, 1998; Kingsland, 2005).
Histories of global environmental thought have tried to do justice to the
wide array of topics related to human concern for the environment. But
often these accounts have neglected to amplify the particular relation
between ideologies, politics and science (compare Bramwell, 1989;
Worster, 1985). Recently, a branch of literature has sprung from the
political sciences, looking at the formation of international
environmental regimes. Yet works in this tradition have usually sought to
explain particular policy outcomes without integrating these into the wider
context of science and conservation discourses (e.g. Meyer, 2010; Meyer
et al., 1997). By drawing on literature from the history of science and
scientific institutions, linking ecological philosophies and the particular
politics of international conservation, this paper adds another
dimension to this first body of existing literature.
In particular, this article builds on those works in the history of
science that have studied the roles of public intellectuals in the life
sciences in the politically turbulent twentieth century (Barrow, 2013;
Anker, 2001; Mitman, 1992; Kuznick, 1987). Similarly, it draws on
numerous historical studies about the particular ideologies regarding
the relation between man and nature that were developed by certain
scientific programs or institutions (Maurel, 2013; Wo¨ bse, 2012; Sluga,
2010; Emmerij et al., 2001). This article, however, goes beyond the
national or institutional context of single organizations or academic
schools that has dominated this second branch of historiography. By
looking at an international scientific program, I study an expert network
stretching over multiple international organizations, connecting and
carrying individual experts and their ideas.
I begin by sketching the organizational and ideological background
of international conservation at the beginning of the IBP. In particular,
I look at the hopes conservationists attached to the program. Following
this, I focus on the development of the two competing expert groups
that formed around two different classification schemes designed to
record and analyze ecological regions and their protection status. These
two classification schemes, as I show, were built on two different
ecological philosophies. Moreover, the different groups who propagated
these schemes held diverging ideas on the object, methods and purposes
of global conservation: their visions of conservation were linked to a
particular politics of the international. Finally, I reconstruct how in the
1970s both classification schemes provided the components that
would constitute the MAB’s take on internationally organized and
science-based conservation, leading to the still-existing World Network
of Biosphere Reserves.
Ideas for an International Program on Biology
Ideas for a big science program in biology appealed mainly to those
conservationists of the 1960s who believed that science, ecology in
particular, held the key to successful nature protection. Since the 1940s,
the main organization for international conservation, the International
Union for the Protection of Nature (IUPN) had been referring to
ecology as its scientific underpinning. Institutionally this was manifested
in 1954 by the creation of a Commission on Ecology and with the
employment of a first staff ecologist in the form of the Berkeley wildlife
zoologist Lee Talbot. This emphasis on science-based conservation
methods was accompanied by a conscious disassociation from all
romanticized preservation endeavors.2 A name change to International
Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
in 1956 proclaimed the new focus on natural resource management
(Holdgate, 1999, p. 63). When in 1960, large-scale projects in Africa and
Asia had brought in research grants from the National Science
Foundation, IUCN’s President, the Swiss zoologist Jean George Baer,
proudly announced that the Union had officially been recognized as a
scientific organization (Baer in IUCN, 1960, p. 22).
Despite Baer’s enthusiasm, however, those conservationists who
promoted science-based approaches were by no means acting in concert.
IUCN lacked a common focus, a unifying idea of ecology and a
consensus on how to implement conservation measures on a global scale.
Within the Union different ideas circulated on the consequences that the
aspired scientification should have for the content of IUCN’s
conservation projects. Diverging interests between those proposing a focus on
ecosystems and those conservationists in the older preservationist
tradition concerned with individual threatened species in particular
regions, became more palpable.
Whereas ecosystem conservation was a rather young field of
research, the protection of species was firmly rooted within IUCN’s
program. IUPN had started with the collection of data on threatened
species in the 1940s. By the 1960s, the Red Data Book of Threatened
2 William Cronon, for instance, has described how the echo of an unquestioning
glorification of wilderness that underlay North America’s early conservation movement
could be heard well into the twentieth century (Cronon, 1995, p. 71; see Lewis, 2007).
Species by the Species Survival Commission had become a cornerstone
in the Union’s program (Boardman, 1981, p. 51). With many former
colonial regions that contained focal points for conservation moving
towards independence, a number of leading IUCN conservationists saw
the main area of operation of the international Union in the Southern
Hemisphere. Projects such as the Union’s Species Survival Commission
expedition to the Near and Middle East, Africa and Asia, and its
resulting report A Look at Threatened Species were part of these
initiatives (Talbot and IUCN, 1960). As a consequence, and to the dismay
of the proponents of ecosystem conservation, a large number of the
Union’s efforts focused on traditional, formerly colonial conservation
areas in the African and Asian continent, which were home to
charismatic animals (e.g. Adam, 2014; Tilley, 2011).
Around 1960, in the spirit of the large-scale international science
programs of the time and in the climate of growing global concerns
about shrinking natural resources, the first ideas for an international
program for biology were developed. Conservationists of all camps
within IUCN perceived this as an opportunity to enhance their
recognition within the international biological community. Originally, the
program was to build on advancements in the life and geo-sciences
brought about by the International Geophysical Year of 1957
(Coleman, 2010, p. 2). Although the initiators behind the IBP were not
conservationists, conservation experts managed to gain a foothold in
the IBP’s preparation process (Worthington, 1983, p. 140).3 At a
planning meeting in Lisbon in 1960, IUCN’s President Baer, who was
acquainted with one of the Program’s founders through the
International Union for Biological Sciences, suggested the study of immediately
threatened biological communities as one suitable topic for an
International Biological Program (Waddington in Worthington, 1975, p. 4).
His proposal fell on sympathetic ears. When IBP was formally
launched in 1963 at the International Council for Scientific Unions
(ICSU)’s tenth General Assembly in Vienna, an international
Conservation Section (IBP/CT) constituted one of seven international
subcommittees. All sub-committees, subject to a central executive board,
the Special Committee (SCIBP), were organized on a non-governmental
3 IBP initiators were the American physicist Lloyd Berkner and the British bio
chemist Sir Rudolph Peters, at that time the past and the present President of
International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), and the Italian geneticist Giuseppe
Montalenti, President of the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS). The
variety of professions indicates the unconsolidated state of transition that biology as a
discipline was in at the time.
basis (Worthington, 1975, pp. 7–8).4 They consisted of only of scientific
members, a set-up that seemed to provide an opportunity for the
wellnetworked conservation experts of IUCN to get involved. Yet, in
contrast to Baer’s original ideas, a number of conservationists in favor of
ecosystem conservation on a worldwide basis hoped that the IBP would
offer incentives to IUCN conservationists for reforming away from a
narrow preservationist agenda.
Despite the agreement on the usefulness of an international program
on biology and its relevance for conservation, uncertainties about the
relation between the objectives of IBP and IUCN caused a substantial
amount of friction. The undefined role that IUCN would have within
IBP resulted in ‘‘considerable discussion’’ between Nicholson, Edward
Graham, the Chairman of IUCN’s Ecology Commission, Sir Hugh
Elliott, the IUCN’s Secretary General and Barton Worthington, the
IBP’s Scientific Director, regarding the sort of affiliation it should have
with the IBP/CT (Nicholson, 1965a). Eventually, on October 14, 1965
the IBP/CT section, staffed with several IUCN members, published its
program in the New Scientist.5 The program clearly focused on
ecosystem conservation and research. At the core of the endeavor was
the construction of ‘‘a world network of research reserves’’ (Graham,
1965, p. 127). Unlike traditional conceptualizations of national parks,
this idea of a scientific network of reserves for ecosystem research was
4 In total, the IBP consisted of seven sub-sections, two others on productivity of
terrestrial communities and plants (PT and PP), one on each freshwater (PF) and
marine productivity (PM), a section of human adaptability (HA), and a final more
practically oriented section on applied biology (UM).
5 Nicholson presented his sub-committee at the second IBP General Assembly in
Paris in 1965. All members had some affiliation with IUCN. Amongst others, the section
comprised the British Duncan Poore, Arthur Clapham, Gregory Radford, and George
Peterken, Nicholson’s disciples from the Nature Conservancy and the Antarctic scientist
Martin Holdgate. Moreover, with Lee Talbot who had been IUCN’s first staff ecologist,
the Smithsonian ecologists Edward Graham and Raymond Fosberg, and the
GermanAmerican botanist Dieter Mueller-Dombois, the CT section also had a strong American
influence. Other well-known names included the Soviet zoologists Andrei Bannikov, the
geologist Walery Goetel and the botanist Anna Medwecka-Kornas from Poland, the
Ecuadorian botanist Misael Acosta Solis, and the French naturalist Jean Dorst. The
Egyptian botanists Mohamed Kassas joined a few years later. Most of them had studied
at renowned European or American universities, had significant field experience and
could draw on extensive national and international research networks. Thus, they could
provide the IBP/CT in London with the access to the relevant science communities and
regions that was needed to run an international program as poorly funded as the IBP
(Nicholson, 1965b). Nicholson later recalled how the IBP/CT could ‘‘exploit’’ IUCN’s
scientific network and could ‘‘work through established conservation bodies in certain
countries’’ such as Great Britain (Nicholson in Worthington, 1975, pp. 12–13).
clearly a move away from species- or habitat-focused conservation.
Scientific investigations were presented as both the means and end to
protecting such sample areas on a global scale. Conservation was to be
based on ecosystem ecology and reserves were to provide areas
necessary for the relevant scientific studies:
The study of natural ecosystems holds the answer to many
outstanding questions in biology, both pure and applied. Such
complexes, however, are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. The
Section on Conservation of Terrestrial Communities of the
International Biological Programme is to work at the establishment of
world-wide reserves, representing characteristic ecosystems.
(Graham, 1965, p. 128)
But, for this long-term goal, IBP/CT conservationists first needed to
know more about the current condition and protection status of the
world’s ecosystems. Basic ecosystem research was to be done. For this
purpose, the IBP/CT section designed a classification and check sheet
survey on the world’s ecosystems. The project offered an opportunity to
those conservationists within the IBP/CT and IUCN who wanted to
carry out more fundamental and quantitative research into the scientific
conservation of ecosystems (see Aronova et al., 2010, p. 208). At the
same time, such a wide-ranging survey, unprecedented at the time,
would complement the work of IUCN, and would not lead to any
programmatic conflicts between the two organizations, it was hoped. At
the same time.
Yet, the division among IUCN‘s conservationists remained.
Frictions between those demanding more fundamental ecosystem research
and those insisting that conservation was about threatened species soon
led to the crystallization of two different groups, advocating two
different classification systems and inventory methods for the IBP/CT.
IUCN members affiliated with the IBP/CT began to develop their own
system to identify and classify different ecosystem types around the
world, which they hoped to inject into IUCN’s projects at a later stage
(e.g. Blair, 1977; Worthington, 1968). In this, they were however
opposed by a number of IUCN conservationists, who suggested a closer
cooperation with attempts to design a system for the mapping of the
world’s vegetation types, which were already underway at another
major player dealing with aspects of global nature, UNESCO. This,
they hoped, would not only solve the classification problem, but also
play out beneficial for IUCN’s public recognition and strengthen their
institutional status within the UN system. Thus, rather than ending the
competition for spheres of competences and the discussions on
institutional relationships, the planned classification system continued to
fuel differences of opinion.
Nicholson and the Fosberg Classification
In this section, I examine these differences in more detail, focusing on
the development of the two classification schemes favored by two
different groups of IUCN conservationists. The differences between the
two classification systems, both mainly focusing on vegetation
structures and both aspiring a global coverage, might look insignificant. In
fact however, the two systems represented two distinct approaches to
international conservation. These approaches were not only based on
discrepant ecological theories. Rather, they epitomized crucial
differences regarding the kind of nature they aimed to protect, the role
assigned to conservation expertise, and how international nature
protection was to be achieved. To grasp what was at stake, a closer look
at the two sets of scientific and normative beliefs behind the
classifications is necessary.
A particularly influential character behind the IBP/CT and the main
promoter of its chosen classification system was the section convener,
Edward Max Nicholson. Nicholson, regarding the CT section as his
own brainchild, enjoyed the privilege to appoint his own section
members and set in motion much of its program. Born in 1904 in
Kilternan (Ireland) and perhaps one of the best-known British
conservationists, he was not a biologist by training (e.g. McCormick, 1991).
Having read art history at Oxford, he came to ecology through
birdwatching and his extracurricular activities at the Oxford Exploration
Club, which led him to meet several influential ecologists of the 1920s
and 1930s: Julian Huxley, Arthur Tansley and Charles Elton. Elton’s
population biology had an especially strong influence on Nicholson’s
ecological worldview. Elton’s theory of population dynamics opposed
the predominant idea of a given balance in nature. Also Nicholson did
not believe in a natural strife towards stability in the absence of human
influences. Yet, this idea was held by many early ecologists and popular
amongst a large division of conservationists who favored isolated nature
sanctuaries as the main means of conservation (Cooper, 2007, p. 46).
Like Elton, Nicholson thought instead that the development of local
animal populations was always determined by environmental factors of
their territory (Elton, 1927; see Birkhead, 2011, p. 235). The conclusion
that managing nature by manipulating external environmental factors
was not alone possible, but necessary to guarantee a balanced system
was crucial to Nicholson’s ecological and conservationist writings and
his plans for IBP/CT.
While Nicholson learned his ecology from Elton, it was the more
socialscience-oriented ecologists, Tansley and Huxley, who had a significant
impact on his view on human society and man’s place in nature. In contrast
to Elton, who had confined his work to environmental influences on animal
populations, Tansley and Huxley applied ecology to wider societal
problems (Kingsland, 2005, p. 240 ff.; Anker, 2001).6 Especially his friend
Huxley, who in the late 1920s had visited the USSR and had admired the
results of large-scale social and economic planning, would influence
Nicholson’s future career and his ecological world-view.7 For Nicholson,
the objective of nature conservation was essentially to distribute and
manage natural resources, wild as well as farmed. In line with Tansley
(1939), he saw the border between the natural and the artificial as arbitrary.
In theory he distinguished between ‘‘unconverted’’ nature, shaped through
natural selection, semi-modified areas, and natural ecosystems completely
modified by man (Nicholson, 1970a, p. 64). He stressed, however, that
untouched nature virtually no longer existed, neither in Great Britain nor
in most other parts of the world. Accordingly, he thought that conservation
approaches that pursued the mere isolation of untouched territory, without
managing or researching, would contribute little to environmental problem
solving (Nicholson, 1970a, p. 286).
When it came to studying and managing different landforms,
Nicholson assigned a leading role to scientific experts and stressed the
need for centralized scientific steering committees.8 Nicholson
6 The environmental historian Peder Anker has described how in the 1920s and 1930s
Tansley and Huxley, at the time good friends of Nicholson’s, belonged to a particular
Oxford school of human ecologists. In ecology applied to human society, this group saw
the solution to the looming economic depression in Britain and other parts of the
Western world (Anker, 2001). Crucial in the early work of Tansley and Huxley was a
temporal, evolutionary dimension, including a diachronic account about man’s relation
to the Earth (Anker, 2001, p. 221). At the same time their idea of ecology also entailed
an outlook to the future in which every generation was responsible to maintain the
balance between man and nature for the generations to come (Tansley, 1942; Huxley
et al., 1934; Huxley, 1926).
7 Nicholson’s 1931 essay ‘‘A National Plan for Britain’’ became the manifesto of the
research organization Political and Economic Planning (PEP) that he and Huxley
consequently founded (Grebenik, 1955).
8 In particular, Nicholson’s wartime involvement strongly influenced his belief in a
dominant role for scientific experts in the planning and managing of environmental and
social problems (Nicholson, 1940).
ued to follow this technocratic approach when his organizational talent
granted him a post in the deputy prime minister’s office in 1945 and a
seat in the Official Advisory Council of Scientific Policy in 1948 (Boote,
2003). In the post-war years he contributed to the implementation of
legislation such as the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and the
1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (Boote, 2003).
The acts established that ‘‘physical planning should be conceived as a
national, rather than a local, responsibility’’ (Hill and Kerrigan, 1948)
and they transferred the rights to maintain and manage the British
National Parks to a national research committee. In 1952, Nicholson
became Director-General of this committee, which by then had become
part of the British Nature Conservancy (Bocking, 1997).9
Although successfully managing conservation in Britain through the
Nature Conservancy, Nicholson’s growing environmental concerns
called for global solutions. Not long after the foundation of IUPN,
Nicholson became involved in the activities of the organization. In the
1950s, he was a regular participant in the meetings of the Commission
on Ecology and presented on his experiences relating to the exchange
between ecological research and land management (IUCN, 1957, pp.
82–85). However, as a technocrat and centralist planner, Nicholson was
not only discontented with the regional approach to conservation of
IUCN’s Special Projects, he also thought the bureaucratic management
of IUCN impeded the efficient implementation of conservation
expertise, and demonstrated the inconsistencies in conservation’s scientific
foundation (Nicholson, 1970a, p. 129, 1973; Nicholson in IUCN, 1957,
p. 50).10 In the IBP’s overall focus on system ecology, Nicholson saw the
9 In the following years the Conservancy greatly expanded its activities and influence,
establishing a large number of reserves and research sites. In 1963 it founded the Monks
Wood Experimental Station not far from London, the first research laboratory to
investigate the effect of toxic chemicals on wildlife (Boote, 2003). For a biography of
Nicholson and a comprehensive analysis of how his political views influenced his
technocratic ideas on the management and conservation of natural resources, see Mark
10 Chairing IUCN’s Fifth General Assembly at Edinburgh in 1956, Nicholson
criticized the decision-making capacities of the Governing Council: ‘‘La v e´ritable U.I.C.N.
est l’e´ manation invisible de tous ceux qui demeurent attach e´s aux ide´ es de la
conservation et a` l’e´ cologie qui ne peut subsister si elle n’est pas renferme´ e dans un corps sain’’
(Nicholson in IUCN, 1957, p. 50). Still in 1970, he expressed dissatisfaction with the
lack of inclusion of the ecological sciences in international nature conservation: ‘‘At
world level, all previous efforts by the International Union of Biological Sciences and
the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to interest ecologists in giving
the necessary minimum support for an international working group of their own have
come to nothing’’ (Nicholson, 1970a, p. 289).
chance to unify once and for all the diverse theories behind conservation
by devising truly global, coherent and future-oriented application
principles for ecosystem conservation and management.11
In particular, computational models on energy cycles of biological
systems and energy flows intrigued him (Nicholson, 1964). In the 1950s,
the introduction of computers had allowed the study and simulation of
functions of any system and system ecology experienced a new upswing
(Hammond, 2003; Odum, 1963; Watt, 1962, p. 253).12 With the
development of cybernetic approaches in ecology, studying interrelated
systems consisting of life forms and their environment over time,
Nicholson’s demands for universal principles for conservation found a
scientific basis. Computer technology was key to the new method
Nicholson envisioned for conservation that went far beyond the
preservation of particular species or habitats (Nicholson, 1970a, p. 59).
Attributes of natural systems, he believed, could not be studied in
fragments but only by looking at the functioning of the system as a
whole. Systems thinking, then, constituted the necessary move away
from simple, or locally-grounded, cause-and-effect thinking and
shortterm planning: Problems could not be assessed or tackled locally,
without taking into account the functioning of the whole system. Like
the system models created for other IBP sub-projects, by, for instance,
Eugene Odum (1963) or Howard Odum (1967), he commissioned a
model of the biosphere and technosphere that would lay out the
continuous and reciprocal interaction of human society with its
environment (Figure 1).13 Nicholson thought this system approach offered a
holistic outlook towards environmental problems that could back up his
technocratic planning approach, linking society, land-use, and natural
11 Systems science set out to study biological systems ‘‘in which everything affects
everything else.’’ One of the earliest systems ecologists, Kenneth Watt, defined a system
as ‘‘an interlocking complex of processes characterized by many reciprocal cause-effect
pathways’’ (Watt, 1966, p. 2).
12 Historians have aptly described how in the age of computer technology new ideas
of system thinking merged with cybernetic calculations (see e.g. Bowler and Morus,
2005; Skyttner, 2005; McIntosh, 1986).
13 According to Keller and Golley (2000, pp. 208 ff.) energy models by, for instance,
Howard and Eugene Odum played into the holistic systems thinking behind IBP in
general (see Hagen, 1992, p. 167). Although not implying computation, these models
emerged from the same conceptual framework as mathematical system models that
calculated energy and nutritious cycles within closed ecosystems. The Odum brothers
also devised models for different ecosystem types, independent of the geographical
location, similar to the classification that Nicholson would develop (E. P. Odum, 1963).
With the ideology-laden image of the technosphere and the
biosphere, Nicholson illustrated the societal relevance of the work of his
IBP/CT section to audiences beyond the biological community.
Midway through the IBP/CT’s action phase he used the model to address
development experts at the Columbia University Conference on
International Economic Development, organized by economist Barbara
Ward in 1970. The model allowed Nicholson to explain ‘‘nature’s and
man’s interaction as value-free physical processes’’ (Nicholson, 1970b,
p. 1). Designed to function as an objective tool of demonstration, it
showed society and nature as part of an interdependent, yet manageable
system. According to Nicholson, ecological management was needed to
avoid undesirable or even disastrous side effects of humans’ use of
nature such as overexploitation or industrial poisoning.
Nicholson’s wider philosophy remains somewhat hidden in the
official IBP documents, but was made more explicit in writings he published
in the same period. These contain numerous passages where Nicholson
expressed his worries about the disturbed and mostly ignored
relationship between nature and man and where he assigned the highest
authority to a holistic, systems-based expertise:
It will not be possible to harmonise human development with the
natural environment on the necessary grand scale until those in
charge […] are educated afresh so that they learn to see problems as
a whole. […]. Technologists of broader and deeper formation, with
complex and well-balanced professional training, will alone be
capable of successfully handling the immense problems of adaption
now facing us. (Nicholson, 1970a, pp. 58–59)
This passage clearly illustrates that Nicholson perceived both nature
and society as interrelated entities that needed to be balanced through
and managed by well-trained experts.
These key ideas—an ecosystem thinking that encompassed man within
nature, future-oriented planning, and a technocratic, top-down
implementation of conservation—already structured Nicholson’s activities as
head of the Nature Conservancy in Britain. In 1963, the British Nature
Conservancy, under Nicholson’s presidency, had created a survey on the
human impact on the British environment. Based on the survey a
chart had been created showing different land types affected in time and
space, and listing land development problems as well as possible
solutions. Now, as the convener of the CT section, Nicholson intended that
comparable surveys should be carried out for all world regions. These
surveys could help to forecast problems and to provide guidelines of
action and protection, especially as he feared that in the future a growing
world population would only intensify exploitative land-use practices
(Nicholson, 1970b, pp. 3–4). In Britain, the Nature Conservancy’s survey
was used to inform economic decision-making on a national level.
Nicholson envisioned a similar top-down approach for international
development projects through conservation experts. This same line of
thought was behind IBP’s classification and check sheet survey of the
world’s ecosystems that Nicholson initiated. The design of a general
ecosystem classification, coherent surveying methods, and the
computerization of globally collected ecological data would bring conservation a
significant step closer to becoming the superordinate science for land
management that Nicholson intended it to be (Nicholson, 1969b).
Designing such a classification system, however, required
epistemological choices. Nicholson was aware that a recognized way of classifying
ecosystems had yet to be found. It remained unclear where one ecosystem
ended and another started, and this also varied with the type and
topography of the concerned area (Nicholson, 1970a, pp. 69–70). He
therefore believed some pragmatic first system had to be devised to
measure and reflect, ‘‘on a universal scale but on a selective manageable
basis’’ what was necessary to understand the natural environment
(Nicholson 1970a, p. 70). According to Elton, all energy production cycles
within an ecosystem were based on the generation of plant material from
solar energy. Therefore, vegetation could be used as a nce for ecosystem
structures.14 After several rounds of discussion, the IBP/CT Section
decided to use the ‘‘Classification of Vegetation for General Purposes’’ of
the Smithsonian botanist Raymond Fosberg (1961) for the categories of
the ecosystem survey they devised (Clapham, 1980, p. 91; Peterken, 1967).
In essence, Fosberg’s classification (Figure 2) featured two decisive
characteristics. First, it did not depend on floristic criteria, meaning in this
case particular plant species. Rather it aimed to capture the physiognomic
structure of the concerned ecosystem (this meant the vegetational
arrangement in space: whether it was open, closed, or sparse) and the
biological function of existing plant formations, for example seasonal
leave shedding (Clapham, 1980, p. 38). Second, Fosberg’s system was
strictly based on vegetation types and purposefully avoided the
incorporation of place-specific environmental information such as climatic or
geographic details into the vegetation categories. This way, Fosberg’s
14 Nicholson concluded: ‘‘We must be content with a classification of vegetation, on
the basis that vegetation is an integrated expression of the ecosystem’’ (Nicholson, n.d.
but probably 1968). ‘‘The eventual goal will be to translate everything on to the level of
entire ecosystems […]’’ (Nicholson, 1969a).
survey of Conservation Sites: an Experimental Study, Arthur Clapham. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
system would help to generate fundamental knowledge about the overall
ecosystem, not drawing premature conclusions on its functioning from
Nicholson believed this approach to be advantageous for two reasons. On
the one hand, as it was not bound by local species occurrences, he believed the
Fosberg system could be employed to study ecosystems anywhere on the
globe. On the other hand, the check sheet survey based on Fosberg’s
classification could be used to do ecological groundwork beyond conservation in
the strictest sense. Nicholson hoped that a separate recording of vegetation
information and other environmental data would eventually allow for
objective research on the relations between climate, structure, and flora.
Nicholson explained the importance of collecting data in ‘‘pure’’ form
so that any subsequent attempts to correlate e.g. vegetation
occurrence with soil or climate will be entirely free of the suspicion
that the method of collecting data contains a built-in bias towards
assuming some type of connection [between, for instance, climate,
region, and vegetation] which should be the function of the data to
test objectively. (Nicholson, 1969b)15
Eventually, Nicholson hoped, the separated data units, recorded on a
check sheet, paired with a worldwide grid square nce system and stored in
a punch card database at Monks Wood, could instruct the anticipatory
scientific planner. In line with Elton’s population dynamic principles,
Nicholson believed that the organization and structure of biotic
communities in different habitats was in fact very similar (Nicholson, 1969b;
compare Cooper, 2007, p. 45). The data of the check sheet survey would
not only make basic information available to study the functioning of
ecosystems and to determine different types of natural systems. It would
moreover enable future computer calculations on the potential
productivity of different plant and land type combinations. Nicholson saw the
purpose of the check sheet survey and the classification in enabling future
scientists to forecast which crops, and later also which animals, could
potentially prosper where (Nicholson, 1970a, pp. 68, 73). Throughout the
years of IBP and its synthesis until 1974, Nicholson was optimistic that
this kind of ecological studies would reform global conservation and
land-use practices, coordinated by his team at Monks Wood (Nicholson
in Clapham, 1980, p. 2).
15 ‘‘Where vegetation units are delimited in part by environmental features,
correlation of such a vegetation map to environmental maps of the same area becomes
problematic as this may result in circular reasoning’’ (Clapham, 1980, p. 38).
The UNESCO Classification
A few years after Nicholson had begun to plot his ambitious reform
plans for international conservation standards, a competing group of
IUCN conservationists recognized in IBP’s Conservation Section the
chance to link conservation more strongly to UNESCO. UNESCO had
been one of the original sponsors of IUCN in 1948 and, since then, it
had developed a strong and financially secure resource research
program to which several IUCN conservationists hoped to link their own
projects. Already in 1960, UNESCO had regrouped its activities in the
division for the Studies and Research relating to Natural Resources,
under the engineer and Director General Michel Batisse. Conservation
featured alongside studies on hydrology, geology, soil science, and other
ecological studies. The program, which started its operational phase
parallel to the IBP launch in 1964, had at its disposal an attractive
budget of nearly US$ 800,000 for the first 2 years alone, a substantial
sum compared to the US$ 200,000 yearly available on average for all
IBP projects together (Worthington, 1983, p. 165). Its Advisory
Committee consisted of fifteen internationally-known specialists, many of
whom were also members of IUCN. Like Nicholson and the IBP/CT
also UNESCO emphasized the importance of integrated surveys and
maps of natural resources on land and water. Likewise, UNESCO also
stressed the need for international cooperation when it came to the use
of natural resources.
While IBP was in full swing, this focus on international cooperation
in resource research led to the UNESCO Biosphere Conference in 1968
and first discussions about Man and the Biosphere Program (MAB) in
1970 (UNESCO, 2006, pp. 225–228). The MAB, which could
potentially take over the IBP’s results after 1974, offered an outlook to a new
and attractive platform for conservation expertise. In the late 1960s, a
group of former UNESCO biologists had found its way in at the top
end of IUCN. These conservationists were now hoping that their many
colleagues working for IBP could, after its potential integration into
MAB, facilitate a closer alliance between IUCN and the resource-rich
UNESCO (UNESCO, 1970).
On first sight, UNESCO’s emphasis on natural resources maps seemed
to complement the aims of Nicholson and his Conservation section.
Furthermore, the scientific board of IBP saw cooperation as a great chance to
assure secure funding for IBP in general, and from the mid-1960s, closer
links developed between the ICSU and UNESCO. However, at a closer
look UNESCO’s classification was grounded in a different ecological
philosophy and an idea on conservation expertise opposite to that by
Nicholson’s Conservation Section. UNESCO’s approach was however
shared by several high-ranking IUCN conservationists. The group,
amongst them also IUCN’s Director General Gerardo Budowski and the
Union’s Senior Ecologist Raymond Dasmann, lobbied for a stronger
affiliation of the IBP/CT’s work with research on natural resources
conducted by UNESCO. Both Budowski and Dasmann, who both had
formerly worked for UNESCO, viewed Nicholson’s attempts to turn the IBP/
CT into a prototype for global, conservation-steered ecosystem
management with some skepticism.16 Their critique was substantiated by the
classification system which they used to oppose that of Fosberg.
As indicated, IBP/CT promoted global ecosystem studies that
focused on potential productivity. It aimed at recording separate data
units, which would allow for supposedly objective computer surveys for
productive land-management. In contrast, UNESCO’s classification
was more descriptive. It was neither suited nor aimed for computer
calculations but aimed at the mapping of resources for human use. It
was not to be used for a globally comparative survey, but was to serve
for the creation of sets of local maps for particular resource projects.
Published in 1973 by the UNESCO Committee on Classification and
Mapping of the World’s Vegetation the UNESCO’s vegetation
classification was based on a list supplied by Josef Smithu¨ sen and Heinz
Ellenberg, and further drafts by Ellenberg and Dieter Mueller-Dombois
from 1967 and 1969 (UNESCO 1973a; Ellenberg and
Mueller-Dombois, 1967). It provided sets of symbols, color schemes and labels to
mark vegetational zones on geographical regions or country maps with
a scale of 1 to 1 million.
Unlike the Fosberg system, the UNESCO classification system was
not a tool to advance basic ecological research. The authors did not
assume that physiognomy and structure of the vegetation alone could
identify types of ecological habitats or environments. Therefore, the
UNESCO classification added supplementary terms referring to
climate, soil and landform, believed to coincide in particular geographical
conditions. Instead of first testing these links, like Nicholson hoped to
do with the IBP/CT check sheet survey, Ellenberg and
Mueller-Dombois added assumed climatic information to the categories and
definitions of the classification (UNESCO, 1973a; Clapham, 1980, p. 42).
Additionally, the UNESCO classification contained categories which
combined environmental, vegetational, and floristic (species-specific)
data (Figure 3). It linked more structural elements to particular
associations of indicator species which Ellenberg called ‘‘o¨ kologische
Gruppen’’ or ‘‘synusia’’ (Ellenberg, 1963; Clapham, 1980, p. 93).17
Based on these, an accompanying vegetation map included a color and
symbol code for 225 vegetation types, in order to provide a general
overview that could serve for immediate statistical purposes (Figure 4).
This way, for example, endangered vegetation units in different regions
could be singled out for conservation on a map.
For IUCN’s senior ecologist Dasmann and others at IUCN, the
UNESCO’s system, combining environmental, formation and
particular species information into one category, was preferable over IBP/CT’s
strict separation of recorded characteristics. Basic research into
ecosystems or predicting potential productivity was not what they
aimed for. The synthesis volume on CT’s work later described that
many conservationists recognized from the beginning that the
‘‘information derived from the use of the Fosberg classification would be
insufficient for the full purposes of the check sheet survey, with its
emphasis on conservation’’ (Clapham, 1980, p. 67). In particular
Dasmann displayed his discontent when corresponding and publishing on
the matter. The focus of conservation, after all, was on threatened
species and populations and not on physiognomic formations
(Dasmann in Clapham, 1975). Knowledge over formations was insufficient
for conservation purposes according to Dasmann, as areas with similar
physiognomic features could have a very different species configuration
(Dasmann, 1973a, b). With this view he was not alone. Also former
17 One example can be found in Figure 3: ‘‘‘Tropical alpine to closed bunch-grass
communities with a woody synusia of tuft plants’ (Espeletia, Lobelia, Sencio).’’
IUCN conservationist Duncan Poore explains retrospectively that he
disagreed with an inventory approach, such as Nicholson’s, that focused
on long-term data collection and calculations of productivity, and
which neglected the focus on threatened species and ecosystems
necessary for conservation (Poore in Norman, 2014). In particular, the
‘‘predictive power’’ that Nicholson assigned to the check sheet survey
was criticized, as it was believed to do little to solve the pressing
conservation problems of the time (Fosberg, 1972).
Rather than striving for universal categories, the information conveyed
through the UNESCO maps was directly applicable for local conservation
purposes. At the same time, it was relevant for those purposes only. First of
all, the maps were restricted to ‘unspoiled’ vegetation. In contrast to
Nicholson’s project of mapping all types of managed and unmanaged
ecosystems, the UNESCO classification was based on natural climax
vegetation and near-climax vegetation, ‘‘not wheat fields,’’ or ‘‘banana
plantations’’ (UNESCO, 1973a, p. 16). Moreover, rather than imposing universally
valid criteria from London or the Smithsonian Institute to be disseminated
throughout all world regions, the system was much more open to local
approaches: ‘‘Specific mapping criteria may have to be worked out regionally
within this framework. These can then be based on a combination of
regionally significant structural and floristic criteria’’ (Clapham, 1980, p. 43).
Also local knowledge and language could be taken into account: ‘‘Locally
established terms meaningful to the inhabitants of the respective region (e.g.
campo cerrado) may be added […]. In this manner vegetation maps are
meaningful to local users as well as to a world-wide audience. This is
especially important for comparative studies’’ (UNESCO, 1973a, p. 29).
Here we see very different politics of global conservation at work.
UNESCO’s mapping system reflected their take on conservation
expertise, which had—unlike Nicholson’s doctrinal universalism—always
allowed for regional approaches and initiatives. The conservation issues
that UNESCO had so far been concerned with included programs on arid
lands and the humid tropics and had aimed at giving advice for particular
localities, which aligned well with Dasmann’s own experiences (Ku¨ chler,
Maquin, and UNESCO, 1970; also see UNESCO, 2006). Critical of all
forms of centralized technocracy, he considered undifferentiated
topdown approaches unworkable when the diverse values and priorities of
local communities, regions or nation states were at stake (Dasmann, 1965,
p. 292, 1968, pp. 223 ff.): ‘‘No single piece of legislation or governmental
reorganization will guarantee that environmental conservation will
become a reality. [Environmental struggles] will be found at city, county,
state, national, and international levels’’ (Dasmann, 1972a, p. 433).
Neither in conservation, nor in development issues could experts ‘‘impose
something from without’’ (Dasmann and Jarrell, 2000, p. 47).
In contrast to the IBP, Dasmann and those favoring closer links
between IUCN and UNESCO stressed not only the common duties of
its member states to carefully gauge projects of resource use and
conservation. UNESCO pointed at the countries’ own rights to locally
determine development rates, allowing for more bottom-up
conservation incentives.18 The IBP/CT’s cybernetics was supposed to provide an
object analysis of the biosphere-technosphere-nexus, allowing for
topdown management measures that were society independent and value
free. In Dasmann’s vision, to the contrary, society and man constituted
the determining factor, both in the organization and the content of
conservation. Moreover, Dasmann began to doubt that the same
universal rules for conservation could apply everywhere on the globe. From
the mid-1970s onwards, he would propagate a form of ‘‘bioregionalism’’
that linked nature protection to local traditions and cultures (Pepper
et al., 2003, p. 237). Measurements should not be ‘‘filtered from the
top’’, but designed and implemented ‘‘at grass root level’’, respecting the
‘‘importance of indigenous peoples and their cultures’’ (Dasmann, 1975,
pp. 48, 154). Thus, Dasmann’s vision for conservation and conservation
expertise was not only irreconcilable with Nicholson’s central
technocratic planning, but was inherently anthropocentric and put a lot of
emphasis on fieldwork, a diversity of methods, as well as local
experiences and governance.
In line with Dasmann’s more inclusive way of thinking, a number of
IUCN members remained in favor of integrating the IBP more closely
into the UNESCO program, to allow for a continuation of IBP efforts
after the end of its ten-year period (Holdgate, 1999, p. 98). On an
InterAgency Consultation Meeting at UNESCO in 1969, it was decided that
the ‘‘structures created through IBP, the international networks amongst
scientists, need[ed] to be kept alive’’ and should be integrated into
UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program after the closure of IBP around
1972 (UNESCO, 1970). In 1971 an International Cooperation Council
was formed with representatives from UNESCO, IUCN and the IBP to
facilitate this process. It was to ensure that the follow-up of the IBP
entailed a stronger alignment with UNESCO’s focal areas, the study of
particular ecosystem types and climatic regions in particular locations, as
well as a much stronger human-centered approach to conservation.
The Legacy of the IBP
At a first look, it seems as if reform ideas outpaced those of Nicholson.
The IUCN expert group around Dasmann, promoting an alliance with
UNESCO’s Rational Use of Natural Resources Program was better
equipped than the IBP’s Conservation Section. A look at the three main
18 Also several UNESCO advisors found fault with the IBP’s omission to integrate
experts and interests of developing countries in their projects (Maurel, 2013, p. 185).
outcomes of the MAB’s first 5 years as reported by the Secretary of the
MAB’s International Coordination Council, nicely serves to
demonstrate the main differences between the future for the IBP/CT as
Nicholson had envisioned it, and the course that the actual work of the
MAB took (Di Castri, 1976, p. 235). These differences were
wideranging, encompassing the objectives, methods as well as the
administration of planned conservation projects.
First, the endeavors of the MAB were supposed to be
problem-oriented. Instead of continuing the scientific groundwork as Nicholson had
hoped, MAB focused on practical programs in developing regions. In
the 1970s, the MAB programs diversified, focusing more narrowly on
particular ecological regions. By 1981, MAB researchers had established
a network of seventeen complementary pilot projects on land-use in the
humid tropics. The pilot projects mainly dealt with natural ecosystems,
human impact, resource use strategies and social and biological
processes (Di Castri et al., 1981, p. 53).
Second, the units chosen for study programs had to be
‘‘comprehensive’’ and ‘‘based on human use systems’’ (Di Castri, 1976, p. 235).
This not only included local terminology, but also a focus on acute
societal problems. The ecological approach followed by MAB was
significantly different from the encompassing systems approach
promoted by IBP. UNESCO’s MAB, with its anthropocentric approach,
was opposed to a true systems approach that looked first at the whole
system, regarding man and his environment in interdependence. MAB,
in its studies on particular ecosystems, continued and extended
UNESCO’s research in arid and tropical zones (Golley, 1993).19 These
regions were considered of particular development interest. Proposals by
the US national IBP Committee for a Program for the Analysis of
World Ecosystems (PAWE), to counterbalance MAB’s work on
particular regions, were steadfastly rejected (Blair, 1977, p. 147).
And third, the MAB’s projects, mainly taking place on a national
level, were supposed to fall under the shared responsibility of natural
scientists, social scientists, as well as administrative decision-makers.
This multi-disciplinary composition differed from Nicholson’s hopes for
an overarching ecological approach encompassing nature and society.
After the decision to continue the running projects of the IBP with the
19 The MAB consisted of fourteen major themes: ‘‘Man’s interaction with terrestrial,
freshwater and coastal ecosystems, from polar to tropical zones excluding oceanic
systems; natural coastal ecosystems, form polar to tropical zones excluding oceanic
systems, natural ecosystems, and systems under various stage of manipulation,
transformation and degradation; and large urban systems, considered as ecosystems’’ (Di
Castri et al., 1981, p. 52).
framework of the MAB, Nicholson’s ideal of a non-governmental,
mostly Northern conservation elite, that would be able to advise
environmental measures top-down, was not possible within the political
framework of UNESCO. After the closure of the IBP, international
conservation expertise was to be mainly allocated on the basis of
international representation (Worthington, 1983). Moreover, in
contrast to Nicholson’s technocratic approach, the MAB put emphasis on
local participation. As an UN Special Agency program, projects were
encouraged to be locally implemented with the involvement of social
scientists, land use planners, resource managers and local populations,
integrated into each country’s local culture (Di Castri et al., 1981, p. 54;
M’Bow, 1981, p. 5).
It would be wrong to conclude, however, that the IBP/CT’s work
remained unrecognized by the future members of the MAB. Despite the
divergence from Nicholson’s original plans, the IBP/CT contributed to
the conceptual framework of the MAB to a substantial degree. In fact,
the conservation methods that were implemented within the MAB
constituted a blend of both the scientific and political conceptions of
conservation promoted by Nicholson and those of his opponents. This
merging of approaches became most visible in discussions on the
usefulness of the two classification schemes and the IBP/CT check sheet
survey after the IBP’s closure.
In 1972, IBP/CT began its synthesis and the evaluation of its check
sheet survey. The UNESCO classification, in contrast, remained a
theoretical construct until much later. The number of returned check
sheets was smaller than expected, but significantly nonetheless, for the
first time a global ecological survey had been conducted. The results
were collected at the Nature Conservancy’s research station at Monk’s
Wood by IUCN member and Nicholson disciple George Radford.20
Paired with a respective geo-code that informed on the geographical
origins of the results, the data resulting from the survey was stored first
on punch cards and later on magnetic tapes to be used with early
ATLAS 2 computers (Clapham, 1980, p. 116). The computer system,
then, could provide responds to inquiries on the characteristics of the
vegetation at particular sites, on the location of particular vegetation
structures, and on additional climatic, species, and conservation related
information that had been recorded (Clapham, 1980, p. 115). In this
form, the recorded data from the check sheet survey was available to the
MAB’s expert panel concerned with designing a program for
conservation (UNESCO, 1973b).
The extensive networking that Nicholson and his section practiced
during the years of the IBP ensured that a great majority of the IBP
conservationists remained influential in international conservation after
the IBP’s closure (Blair, 1977, p. 138). Also MAB’s Expert Panel
concerned with conservation included Nicholson’s supporter Radford of
the CT section’s outpost at Monks Wood, as well as Worthington of the
IBP’s central office in London. Throughout the report of the expert
panel one finds traces of the IBP/CT’s conceptual framework and its
work. The report turned the ecosystem-based biosphere reserves into the
main tool for conservation. Previously, this had not been part of
UNESCO’s research programs on natural resources (UNESCO 1973b, pp.
20 ff.; compare UNESCO, 1963).21 Moreover, the expert panel
recognized the value of check sheet survey (UNESCO, 1974). At the Third
Session of the International Coordination Council in 1974, the
Council’s members stressed that the information gathered during the check
sheet survey should be taken into account when selecting new nature
reserves or designing new conservation projects within the MAB
(UNESCO, 1974, p. 3).
Whereas the tangible results of the Survey were much appreciated,
the Fosberg classification that underlay the Survey’s design remained
somewhat contested within the MAB expert panel. One of the
classification’s early critics, Dasmann, too, was a member of the panel. Not
content with the physiognomic approach of Forsberg’s classification,
Dasmann had begun to develop an adapted version of the UNESCO
classification that assigned an even more dominant role to indicator
species (Dasmann, 1972a, pp. 248–249). For this he drew on the ideas of
the American plant ecologist Frederic Clements and zoologist Victor
Shelford, who believed that ecosystems, in successions, always tended
towards a stable climax state with a predictable constellation of
characteristic species (Dasmann, 1973b, p. 1; Clements and Shelford, 1939).
Ecosystems’ climax states in different world regions—so-called
‘‘biomes’’—were much alike, containing similar flora and fauna, Clements
and Shelford proposed.22
21 In the meantime, ecosystems thinking had gathered momentum also outside the
IBP. The expert panel’s report of 1973 not only mentions the work of Nicholson’s
intellectual role model Elton, it also explicitly refers to the Odums’ work on nutrition
cycles (UNESCO, 1973b, p. 11).
22 In 1943, Dice had developed a similar concept, so-called ‘‘biotic provinces’’ that
Dasmann used as interchangeably with the idea of biomes (Dice, 1943).
This way of ordering nature was in several ways opposed to Fosberg’s
classification and Nicholson’s interpretation thereof. First of all, climax
states as described by Clements and Shelford only occurred in virtually
untouched ecosystems, remote from human settlements. Secondly,
different from the Fosberg-based check sheet survey, the mapping of biomes,
presupposing the dominance of certain species in particular regions, and
would not generate any new knowledge on potential combinations of
species, climate and land types that in could contribute to more an efficient
land use planning and management. Yet, for Dasmann, Clements’s and
Shelford’s biomes presented an excellent starting point to develop
regional maps of the major habitats that might require conservation
(Dasmann, 1972b, p. 251). The successional status of a biome province
was already determined by the types of species it contained. For mapping,
classification, and most of all for conservation purposes, Dasmann
proposed to classify biomes in a way that directly distinguished these on the
base of the distinct fauna and flora they contained (Dasmann, 1972b, pp.
249–250). Thus, when in 1973 the MAB expert panel called together a task
force to draw up a list of criteria and guidelines for the establishment of the
MAB’s biosphere reserves network, MAB members actually had three
classifications at their disposal (UNESCO, 1973b).
In the end, the task force called for a classification that could
combine the results of the CT survey and Dasmann’s new classification
(UNESCO, 1974). The result was yet another classification, published in
1975 by the Hungarian biologist and biogeographer Miklos Udvardy on
behalf of UNESCO. This system still forms the decision framework for
biosphere reserve nominations today (UNECSO, 2013). Although the
Fosberg system, at the time, was regarded as an approximation rather
than a final system, the Udvardy classification system certainly
benefitted from the trials and errors of the IBP’s check sheet survey
(UNESCO, 1974, p. 50; Clapham, 1980, p. 26 ff.; see Mueller-Dombois,
1984). The original authors of both the UNESCO and the IBP/CT
classification, Ellenberg and Fosberg, contributed to the drafting of
Udvardy’s system. They took over parts of the basic structure of
Dasmann’s classification, but subordinated the biomes to larger
biogeographical realms and provinces. These differed in their geographical
location, yet also in their main physiognomy, resembling Fosberg’s
categories, and together they constituted the global system that
Nicholson had aspired (Udvardy, 1975, p. 13). Information on fauna
and flora were thought essential for conservation purposes, yet featured
in lower sub-categories to be filled in by local experts (Udvardy, 1975,
pp. 13–15). The protection of endangered species was one of the aims
behind the classification, however ecosystem research, the ‘‘necessary
basis for further development of the life sciences,’’ was deemed a goal
equally important (Udvardy, 1975, p. 5).
This article has looked at two competing conceptualizations of
international conservation expertise that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.
From the beginning of the IBP in 1964, IBP/CT convener Max
Nicholson attempted to reform international conservation by
strengthening and consolidating its scientific basis and by broadening its
sphere of competences to scientifically planned land-use practices. After
1970, a second group of conservationists around IUCN’s Senior
Ecologist Ray Dasmann tried to use the IBP to develop a closer cooperation
with UNESCO. Both groups saw their view on conservation as global
and science-based. The case of the IBP shows, however, that for each
group this entailed very different ideas on the objectives and practices
associated with conservation work and expertise.
Yet, the differences in the two groups’ political ideas, organizational
cultures and ecological philosophies did not lead to the eventual
exclusion of one approach by the other. Rather than continuing a single
conservation traditions, the MAB emerged from the interaction of the
two groups, combining parts of IBP/CT’s ecosystems approach with an
emphasis on local action and intergovernmentally distributed expert
roles as promoted by UNESCO-friendly conservationists.. Since 1975,
the MAB has been combining ecosystems research for land use
management with the targeted combat of local conservation problems. It has
created a global network of reserves for conservation, research,
monitoring and education. Now, this scheme links up exising reserves and
research efforts around the globe, connecting conservation and
ecosystem ecology in practice. While focusing on traditional UNESCO
regions, such as arid lands and the humid tropics, this Biosphere
Reserve Program draws links between natural and modified ecosystems. Its
reserves contain zones for research on natural ecosystems, experiments
on productivity, and for economic activities (UNESCO, 2013; 2015).
This way, the MAB has answered Nicholson’s call for a global
conservation regime composed of reprehensive samples of the world’s
ecosystems (UNESCO, 1974, p. 50). Moreover, it has extended
UNESCO’s ecosystem studies from the purely natural to the
human-influenced and built environment, in line with Nicholson’s British
experiences (Golley, 1993). At the same time, a global network of local
projects with particular foci has emerged under the overarching
umbrella of studying natural systems and their human usage. Up to today,
the MAB’s World Network of Reserves Program integrates elements of
both Nicholson’s universal approach to conservation and of the
regionally focused conservation projects, called for by his original
adversaries such as Dasmann.
On a more general level, the story of the IBP and its continuation in
UNESCO’s MAB shows how the study of different ecological
philosophies and concomitant conservation approaches can contribute to a
better understanding of environmental decision making as a compromise.
So far, it has mostly been controversy and dispute that has brought the
environmental field to the attention of the media and scholarly
investigation (see Rowland, 1973; Dryzek and Schlosberg, 2005; Sabin, 2013).23
Yet, in policy-oriented international working groups or expert councils,
negotiation prevails over conflict. When decisions have to be made, there
is often the need to draw from the various intellectual resources available.
Recorded conflicts between sentimental nature lovers and resource
exploiters, techno-pessimists and promoters of economic growth have done
little to help us understand the workings of experts in the environmental
field. In practice, the formulation of environmental advice and guidelines
is an on-going process during which problems, expertise and methods are
continuously mediated and adjusted. Outcomes are seldom the result of
just one ‘winning’ group of experts. Only by studying how constellations
of arguments evolve, correlate and interact we can, therefore, understand
how scientific expert roles and discourses on environmental problem
solving emerge and consolidate.
The article draws on several unpublished collections, including the
Edward Max Nicholson papers at the Special Collections Centre of
23 Rowland describes the debate between advocates of the society managing approach
supported in Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb (1968) and the anti-population planning
critique of Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle (1971) and which would culminate in a
public dispute in 1972 at the UN Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE).
Covering forty years of debates about the environment, Dryzek and Schlosberg (2005)
draw attention to the diversity of opinions represented within environmental politics.
Sabin (2013) recounts how in the 1970s and 1980s techno-optimistic economists like
Julian Simon challenged the warnings of Ehrlich’s that predicted resource scarcity and
famine if no action was taken against the looming perils of human overpopulation.
The Sir Duncan Rice Library at the University of Aberdeen, the
ward Max Nicholson Papers at the Linnean Society Archives, the Ed
ward Max Nicholson Papers at the Royal Geographical Society
Archive, as well as the SCIBP Papers at the Royal Society Archives.
My work there has been supported by several individuals, in
particular by Gina Douglas, Michelle Gait, and Lady Jennifer Norman. As
part of my PhD research at Maastricht University, this article builds
on numerous meetings with my supervisors Raf de Bont and Ernst
Homburg. An earlier draft has been presented at the Modern Science
Working Group at the Department for the History of Science at
Harvard University and has benefited from the valuable comments by
Janet Browne, Everett Medelsohn, Alex Czizar, Zoe Nyssa, and Geert
Somsen. I thank the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive
criticism. This work is part of the research program Nature’s
Diplomats, which is financed by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution 4.0 International License
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to
the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative
Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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