Ecosystem Services as a Concept is Gaining Currency

In what is undoubtedly a positive development for the natural world, the concept of “ecosystem services” is poised to go mainstream. This is a good thing because the concept is based upon the idea that our status quo economic models do not properly recognize the value of so-called externalities and fail to take into account the “services” that complex and biodiverse ecological systems provide to humanity. Seeing the world through such expansive eyes – through the wide-angle lens of ecosystems – is a refreshing, and promising, departure from the conventional narrow economic mindset. As such, one might say (pun intended) that the concept is, er, “gaining currency.”

For all of its promise, however, I would argue that its worth is really as a “bridge concept” – an advance to be sure – but nonetheless just a stepping stone on our longer path toward a greater awareness of our proper relationship to Nature. To arrive where we really need to go we must expand our awareness in ways that are not easy for those of us embedded in the modern world. Toward that end, I am offering the following (lengthy) email dialogue in the hope that it might contribute to progress on our individual and collective journeys.

The thread begins here, with a post I made on a Great Transitions Initiative thread discussing “Premises of a New Economy”. The concept of ecosystems services had been presented as an important contribution and I offered my critique of the term:

28 October 2011

“As this is the time to give candid feedback I’m going to go ahead and provide my own. I have a quibble with the term “ecosystem services.” Of course, I understand its utility in this discussion as it represents a marked improvement over the status quo failure to recognize value in (or even recognize at all!) that which we cannot monetize.

Nonetheless, I believe the term falls short in that it perpetuates elusive aspects of old paradigm thinking we’re needing to move beyond by continuing to frame the environment as an object that exists for human benefit.

So long as we maintain the story that we’re separate from Nature – and that it is here to serve us – we’re not seeing the roots of our dilemma, and nothing we create or innovate will be adequate to the task of finding authentic sustainability. We can mitigate, we can extend, but we will not solve, as we’ll be tragically attempting to grow solutions on inherently illusory roots.

Rather than go into it here, I offer to anyone interested the following brief web article (I wrote) published earlier this year on the UN University site, Our World 2.0: “To Serve the Ecosystems that Serve Us“.

As [the previous commenter] properly pointed out, adjustments are a necessary component of a paradigm shift, and using the term ecosystem services is certainly an incremental step in the right direction. I offer the above not necessarily as a vote for banishing the use of this term, but in the spirit of further expanding this group’s capacities to find solutions genuinely adequate to our task.

One commenter responded as follows:

At one level it’s easy to agree: if we ‘sell’ sustainability only on the basis of profit, sooner or later the sales pitch will fail. This is no matter whether the ‘profit’ is in ecosystem services or social responsibility or whatever.

I’m still trying to get my head around ecosystem services as currently applied/ used, so I forwarded your mail to a group working with urban sustainability on an ES basis. They reply:

“What is the message? That the ecosystem services approach is wrong, or not enough?

“Contrary to what it says, ecosystem services approaches often strive to incorporate ‘aesthetics, complexity, integrity, cultural wisdom’ so that they don’t end up as externalities. If not they certainly don’t aim to replace those values but rather complement them. Of course quantifying ‘soft values’ is not easy and one has to be very careful when trying to elicit total values of natural systems rather than marginal changes in them.

“The text also says that the values of the satoyama landscapes are the result of ‘co-creation’ through the activities of ancient cultures. My guess is that this co-creation was to a large extent a result of historic demands for certain ecosystem services from that landscape.

“I would be interested to know more about the particular aspects of satoyama culture that could help us ‘discover the forgotten secret to a harmonious existence and, indeed, a meaningful life’. Maybe there are insights that can be implemented in today’s society.”

There is another Japanese word we might take inspiration from, at least if I’ve understood it correctly: mottainai, or (something like) contentment, enjoying ‘what is’ rather than hankering for ‘what is not’, moderation/frugality… Anyone know Japanese?

Finally, I wrote the following:

Elaborating further, with your colleague’s questions and concerns in mind, my concern with the term “ecosystem services” is that while it – importantly – takes the very necessary step of incorporating previously ignored externalities (indeed, explicitly including at times intangibles such as aesthetics and culture), it nonetheless does so under the assumption that the value of something is derived from the recognized service it provides. It still applies, or implies, a monetary value, akin to an actuary assigning value. It becomes a convenient abstraction but in doing so insulates one from the recognition that we exist inextricably within a complex whole whose value transcends the sum of the parts. Necessarily, it cannot take everything into account, because not everything is perceived to provide a service. In a world of valued parts, who speaks for those parts left out of the ES value proposition?

In other words, it fails to go far enough in that it doesn’t start from an assumption of implicit value of all of Nature, recognized as providing a service or not.  As such, it still leaves open the possibility that what isn’t factored into – and recognized by – the ecosystem services equation is not of value because it isn’t seen or understood. Those parts remains outside, marginalized, and are thereby at risk for conscious or unconscious devaluation, with unrecognized consequences, thereby perpetuating the problem of misunderstood cause-and-effect relationships.

Having such a worldview of parts with relative values leads us, by logical extension, to seeing the value of the world as simply the sum of its component parts. It is an extension of a mechanized worldview, a dead universe comprised of dead matter, whose value is discerned on the basis of our human constructs. This narrow vantage point of modernity remains ubiquitous but is obsolete and begs to be recognized sooner than later if we are to recover our right relationship to the Earth from which we’ve sprung. We need what might be called an ecological consciousness.

While ES is moving us, crucially, in the right direction, and is thus necessary…my point is that it should not be mistaken as being sufficient, as it can’t ultimately get us where we need to go, which is the recognition that we humans are not separate from nature, but embedded as one with Nature, and that being human does not entitle us to exploit the environment – any part of it – for our benefit. Our relationship to Nature becomes participatory rather than exploitive, given to stewardship rather than entitled, indeed reverential rather than purely rational. One with rather than one over.

The key aspect of satoyama culture – the “forgotten secret” – your friend inquires about is this very consciousness of oneness, of reciprocity, of the inherent sanctity of Nature, and the respect this gives rise to when participating with this understanding. It is ancient, and was left behind in our rush to apply the scientific method of separating the world into conceptual silos. Indigenous cultures still have a deep, intrinsic understanding of this. In the West and in industrialized cultures, we have forgotten it to our peril, and in forgetting it we have created institutions and value systems that prioritize and value some things over others and fail to see we’re inextricably part of a vast systemic web of balance and cyclical harmony where all things contribute and nothing is wasted, where exploitive behavior has unavoidable, if unseen, cause-and-effect relationships, many of which defy easy recognition or rectification. Thus, we’ve become highly out of balance and haven’t understood why. We use our highly-developed rational minds to see the symptoms and attempt to create ways to rebalance and adjust, technical fixes to attempt to restore or enhance or mitigate, but without an underlying recognition that more of the same application of our rational minds isn’t what is ultimately needed.

I’m not advocating losing the rational mind or its attributes…not at all. These are hard-won evolutionary attributes with profound value. Rather, I am saying that we need to expand our individual and collective identities to move from “me” to “we”. Ultimately, this is the Great Transition I believe we’re all bound to be making.

The Japanese term “mottainai” is wonderful, and speaks directly to the qualities of life that can flow from this “just enough” attitude toward Mother Earth.

One response to this post.

  1. Alan,

    Like you, I see the proposal of monetizing ecological services as a decidedly temporary step rather than a holistic solution. I think the value of this mentality is about trying to convey important relationships to a different group of people by putting it terms they can better understand. This is certainly positive as education is key. My qualms with this are similar to those that have been mentioned above.

    The first problem is that the entire mentality reeks of the misdirected ethos that we are slowly “mastering” nature, as if we have even begun to understand the complexities of natural ecosystems enough to catalog their parts and rate their worth relative to how many Big Macs they could buy. A recent biological study published in PLoS Biology journal estimated the total number of species on the plant at 8.7 million with 2.2 million of them in the oceans. The same study points to us only having identified 14% of the species on land and 9% of those in water.

    My second problem is that affixing a price, however high, to a natural resource is creating a point where it would be theoretically valuable to cash in and sell it off for a greater opportunity. As far as I am concerned, trying to weigh the natural environment in dollars and cents is like trying to ascribe a price to democracy. I imagine some dedicated souls could try and postulate the American premium of being a democracy instead of a dictatorship, but whatever number they come up with would be irrelevant because democracy is not for sale at any price. Similarly, clean drinking water has a market value and we could tabulate it’s cost at all parts of the globe and multiple it by its natural quantity, but the fact remains that there is no price that would make the depletion of the earth’s drinking water an acceptable “transaction” for our race.

    The same goes for the rest of the natural world. The dollar value has relatively little meaning given that its very existence is trying to represent something unquantifiable. What is the difference between saying that the annual value of all the natural capital in the world is $33 trillion vs. $35 trillion? Both try to convey that environmental systems are really, really valuable, but both are wrong. Nature isn’t valuable, it’s invaluable.

    If this is the step that some of us need in order to convey the gravity of our need to change our relationship to the natural environment then so be it, but ultimately we need to realize that the complex structure of the world’s ecosystems is integral to our existence.


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