From Ecosystem Services to Gift Culture: An Overdue Change in Perspective

What if we changed our relationship with the natural world from one of taking what we can to one of reciprocity and mutual giving?

The International Satoyama Initiative formally launched at this week’s COP10 Biodiversity Conference in Nagoya, Japan, provides an important boost to preserving traditional forest and farmland (“satoyama”), and seaside (“satoumi”) ecological production landscapes around the world and restoring a balanced and sustainable harmony between humans and the natural environment.

But is the proposed cure for satoyama’s current degenerative state – assigning such biodiverse landscapes value in direct proportion to their “ecosystem services” provided to humans – adequate to the task? Or does viewing nature in such a calculated way – and justifying its preservation for the “services” provided – simply perpetuate obsolete, if widely-held, myths of human separation from nature and nature existing for our benefit?

By recognizing the value of “ecosystem services,” it’s hoped society will be motivated toward their protection and preservation. To be sure, satoyama and satoumi environments the world over are in real danger of being lost, diminishing both biological and cultural diversity, so any efforts toward properly recognizing their value are much needed. And it can be argued that we must start where we are, and where we are as a society is we perceive value in that which we can quantify and monetize, so let’s start there. But can we afford to rely upon such a constricted view of the world?

Undoubtedly, Einstein was correct in saying that we cannot ultimately solve problems at the same level of consciousness at which they were created. As such, we can’t revitalize endangered satoyama landscapes and culture by applying “more of the same” of our contemporary worldview of separation from nature and each other. By relying upon the calculus of economics to ascertain value we implicitly relegate other more abstract but critically important intangibles to the margins. Intangibles such as aesthetics, complexity, integrity, cultural wisdom, and the like end up becoming unappreciated externalities. Failing to comprehend the whole, such a fragmented and distorted worldview fosters the very societal and personal ills which have led to satoyama’s, and the world’s, current predicament.

Better, then, that we retrospect (“look again”) at the origins of satoyama itself, at the roots of the ancient culture which birthed satoyama in the first place. For in doing so we will discover the forgotten secret to a harmonious existence and, indeed, a meaningful life: When we recognize our true, embedded relationship with nature, we value it and treat it like we want to be treated ourselves. With respect, love, cooperation, reciprocity…in short, a gift culture.

It is clear that indigenous cultures didn’t happen upon satoyama landscapes and populate them. They co-created them, working collaboratively with nature’s gifts and each other to slowly craft sustainable lifeways spanning generations. Their underlying worldview of embeddedness in nature, of oneness with the environment, is clearly what undergirded and made possible the establishment and evolution of these original satoyama socio-ecological landscapes.

Significantly, the Satoyama Initiative recognizes that proper maintenance of such rich biodiverse landscapes requires a “crucial human touch.” When young people flee rural environs for more fast-paced lives in the cities, for example, the carefully managed satoyama landscapes, and the culture that sustains them, become neglected and biodiversity suffers, perhaps counter-intuitively to those who might assume humans inevitably foul their environment.

This required “human touch” is stewardship in action. It cannot be harsh and exploitative. Rather, it is gentle and respectful, reflecting an ethic of giving, concern, mutuality, reciprocity and respect, for the past, present, and future, which flows between us and our natural environment, and between all members of the ever-widening circles of our community.

It is time to move beyond the obsolete term “ecosystem services” and instead put the emphasis on service – on stewardship and giving back – on living by the Golden Rule of treating others, including nature itself, as we would like to be treated. For in the end, it is both a spiritual insight and a scientific fact that when it comes to relationships, whether with our neighbor or with nature, what we do to another we do to ourselves.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nipun Mehta & CF'ers, Marc L. Greenberg. Marc L. Greenberg said: RT @charityfocus: Alan writes on "From Ecosystem Services to Gift Culture: An Overdue Change in Perspective" — Satyoma Spirit: […]


  2. Concise and well written, thanks much for the post


  3. Posted by akama san on February 10, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    last 2 paragraphs are so artful and eloquent….
    so much said with so few words. BRAVO.


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