To Serve the Ecosystems that Serve Us

The following article appears in Our World 2.0. It is a modified (improved!) version of a an earlier post on this blog. Thank you, OW2.0, for picking this up and helping spread these ideas!

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 past October’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. Its aim of restoring a balanced and sustainable harmony between humans and the natural environment is something no one could argue the world does not need.

However, is the proposed cure for satoyama’s current degenerative state — assigning such biodiverse landscapes value in direct proportion to the “ecosystem services” (the benefits of nature to households, communities, and economies) provided — adequate to the task? Or does viewing nature in such a calculated way, and justifying its preservation based on the things it gives us, simply perpetuate the tired old (yet sadly still quite widely-held) myth of nature existing for our benefit?

By promoting recognition of the value of the amenities provided by natural ecosystems it is hoped that 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 acknowledging their worth are much needed. It can be argued that we must start where we are, and where we are is in a society that perceives value in that which we can quantify and monetize, so let’s start there.

After all, in our ever-urbanizing world in which some believe satoyama is all but obsolete, managed hinterlands such as forests and rice fields often provide valuable, pragmatic benefits for urban areas, such as flood control. That is aside from the crucial role that rural areas can play in food webs.

Precious intangibles

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, it stands to reason that 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 that have led to satoyama’s, and the world’s, current predicament of rapidly declining environmental quality and resource availability.

Better, then, that we look at the origins of satoyama itself — at the roots of the ancient culture that 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.

This 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.

The human touch

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. Such care for the environment isn’t reserved for satoyama either. Indeed, it applies just as importantly in urban settings, as reflected in the burgeoning interest in urban agriculture and reconnecting cities to their bioregional environments. Wherever such stewardship is practiced, it cannot be harsh and exploitative, as proven by horrifying examples the world over.

Rather, it is gentle and respectful, reflecting an ethic of giving, concern, mutuality, reciprocity and respect for the past, present, and future that flows between us and our natural environment, and between all members of the ever-widening circles of our global community.

It is time to move beyond the ill-conceived 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 neighbour or with nature, what we do to another we do to ourselves.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Joe Woodhouse on March 2, 2011 at 7:53 am

    As I read this posting, I realized that Alan was referring to two distinct ways in which human beings relate to the world. There is an amazing correspondence between his vision and a remarkable book I have been reading recently called “The Master and his Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. Briefly, using all the latest research from neuroscience, McGilchrist explores the fact that the two cerebral hemispheres, right and left, view the world in fundamentally different ways… both ways are essential but in our modern era, the left hemispheric mode has come to dominate and this to the detriment of living systems.

    In McGilchrist’s own words: “The right hemisphere underwrites breadth and flexibility of attention, where the left hemisphere brings to bear focused attention. This has the related consequence that the right hemisphere sees things whole, and in their context, where the left hemisphere sees things abstracted from context, and broken into parts, from which it then reconstructs a ‘whole’: something very different. And it also turns out that the capacities that help us, as humans, form bonds with others – empathy, emotional understanding, and so on – which involve a quite different kind of attention paid to the world, are largely right hemispheric functions.”

    In other words, satoyama is about more than assigning monetary value to the local ecosystem… it is about healing the unbalanced and fragmented modern psyche in which domination by left hemispheric perceptions has blinded us to the bigger picture and alienated us from the natural world of which we are an integral part.


    • Yes! That’s exactly it, Joe. In addition to McGilchrist, you might investigate Leonard Schlain’s “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess” (which I haven’t read yet but should soon):

      “Shlain’s thesis takes readers from the evolutionary steps that distinguish the human brain from that of the primates to the development of the Internet. The very act of learning written language, he argues, exercises the human brain’s left hemisphere–the half that handles linear, abstract thought–and enforces its dominance over the right hemisphere, which thinks holistically and visually. If you accept the idea that linear abstraction is a masculine trait, and that holistic visualization is feminine, the rest of the theory falls into place. The flip side is that as visual orientation returns to prominence within society through film, television, and cyberspace, the status of women increases, soon to return to the equilibrium of the earliest human cultures.”


      • The whole idea of different modes of processing associated with the two cerebral hemispheres is highly nuanced and subtle and has perhaps moved beyond some of the early generalizations that were first promoted in the early days of this kind of research. For instance, it is known that both hemispheres are active in processing not only linear abstraction but holistic and visual processing. Yet there is considerable evidence that runs even into birds, for instance, that the two hemispheres are specialized for different tasks that are both necessary but somewhat opposed and therefore need separation for both to function effectively. It is a long story and McGilchrist does an awesome job of looking at evidence that not only runs the gamut of neuroscience but all of Western history and culture.

        In the end, our current global predicament could be seen as a dysfunction of awareness that has occurred because of an imbalance in the dominance of left hemispheric modes over right hemispheric modes. The way forward is to understand as deeply as possible the various potentials of the human brain and to rebalance our awareness to recover the big picture view and our connectedness to our environments and one another. Satoyama is an admirable attempt to do this and there are many other authentic attempts worldwide. Unfortunately, at this point, it looks like the worst of the left hemispheric modes, for instance, the greed for immediate short term profits sacrificing all human decency and the habitability of our planet to that end, are one the rise.

        It might be useful to think of one hemisphere as feminine and one as masculine… I can see the attractiveness of this outlook and agree that liberating women worldwide is one of the most important tasks ahead of humanity. But we should also realize that this is a simplification that ignores some of the many subtleties of hemispheric differences… it all runs extremely deep and to understand the whole story takes not only all the latest in neuroscience but a look at the entire scope of human history and culture as well as examining the pattern of one’s own life. For me, many of the techniques of religions and mystical systems, as well as many of their teachings, become clear in the light of this idea of one aspect of awareness being emphasized to the detriment of a balanced awareness. This new balanced awareness is big picture, excluding nothing, flexible, free from totalitarian doctrines and beliefs, reaching out in its openness across all time and space, utilizing evidence based truth, and in the service of all humanity and our planet in this time of ultimate global predicament. Embodying these states of awareness and sharing them with others is one of the most enjoyable experiences in this life.

  2. Alan, yet another inspiring contribution, almost poetically written. Thank you for reminding us of the great importance of this mutually beneficial relationship between us humans and our natural environment.

    I can fully appreciate your thoughts. I studied geography and in particular the two complementary disciplines of world regions geography and Earth observation remote sensing (predominantly satellite Earth observation). It is known in world regional geography that living in harmony with the earth and maintaining a supportive custodianship of the land not only makes great sense, it is the law.

    What strikes me as strange is not so much that there are forces in the world that – today just as in the past – exploit nature for their own ruthless economic gain. Those type humans will always exist because humans are a great mix, and people exist everywhere on earth at all societal levels who are not yet taking pleasure from behaving in an ethical and considerate way regarding others and the environment. They are serving themselves first and foremost at the cost of others and nature.

    What does strike me as strange, though, is that there are solutions to the problems of environmental degradation or destruction of Satoyama and Satoumi landscapes. However, an international, integrated concept seems to be lacking to address these unfortunate phenomena across countries and borders. I have, for instance, identified a half dozen powerful proven methods that can turn severely disturbed desertified land into flowering oasis displaying various layers of ground cover, bushes, and trees of different height – in my mind very much deserving of the name of Satoyama. Not only do they constitute a healthy, functioning ecosystem; not only do they feed and nourish the local people; they also provide a means for production in access of daily needs, creating a viable, dependable livelihood for the region’s inhabitants. You call them appropriately “socio-ecological production landscapes”.

    Who would not want to turn these devastated landscapes into healthy biomes rendering access harvests of produce and related products for local consumption, sales, and export? The methods I have been researching are readily available and they have been producing phenomenal results. I have been looking for a benefactor willing to found an organization I offer to run, with the mission of reversing or restoring the desertified world regions. Alternately, an existing environmental organization could take on this initiative as a separate project under my tutelage.

    I also came across the following fantastic initiate: An attempt is being made by a nonprofit organization across to restore some parts of the once fertile, lush, and beautifully vegetated coastlands of the Mediterranean of which the now legendary Ciders of Lebanon are but a faint reminder. Would this not constitute a wonderful example of Satoumi? Logging started the biome’s downfall and sheep and goats husbandry brought the ecosystem to its knees. Stripped of its entire vegetation including ground cover and roots (!), water shortage ensued making sure that nature on her own would never rebound. Therefore, this nonprofit organization based in the South of France, working in partnership with academia, is all-important although they are proceeding slowly due to insufficient funds. I want to also promote this mission so that the revegetation and reforestation efforts can be spread across larger parts of the gorgeous Mediterranean coasts, connecting people and fostering understanding and perhaps peace in the process. Would anyone be willing to join me in supporting this endeavor by helping to identify or raise funds?

    In conclusion I want to mention that I very much experienced and enjoyed the spirit of Satoyama and Satoumi – the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature, biodiversity, high spiritedness and creativity – on the Peninsula and in the South Bay of the San Francisco Bay area. Two superb organizations, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (especially POST’s top land preservation leader Audrey Rust) and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District have been working relentlessly for decades to purchase, preserve, and manage large areas of land. Take a look: and

    How I have enjoyed hiking through their open spaces which they saved from being added to Silicon Valley’s urbanization. They developed a formidable greenbelt system of great beauty maintaining the area’s biodiversity. The lands, such as scenic hillsides, bay shorelines and beaches, and ranchlands are now used for natural resource protection, wildlife habitat, public recreation, and agricultural production providing public enjoyment and beauty.

    In conclusion, I hope that I was able to show through several examples that Satoyama and Satoumi landscapes are being developed or could be regained in various part of the world

    1) There are proven solutions to reclaim desertified regions and turn them into productive landscapes
    2) A brave organization tackles the revegetation and reforestation of small areas of the Mediterranean
    3) Two superb, forward thinking organizations in the San Francisco Bay area have been exemplary in purchasing land for nature protection and human enjoyment.

    To me, Satoyama and Satoumi – especially when found in the proximity of homes – refresh our minds and sooth our soul. They enliven and exhilarate us. They provide livelihoods for many people. Their esthetics is pleasing and harmonizing. We need the restoration and preservation of Satoyama and Satoumi landscapes not only to be just to nature, we need them very much for our own wellbeing.

    Write to me: Write to me: CultivatingEnjoyment_at_gmail_dot_com

    P.S. Alan, I greatly appreciate your dedication to Satoyama. Please keep up your superb work and continue to inspire us.


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