1 January 2010

Earthly Gifts

Part of the job of an environmentally focused economist must be to keep a clear awareness of how valuable the planet is to us, but what does that value mean and how, if at all, can it be measured? To attempt to bridge the gulf between ecology and economics the concept of 'eco-system services' is growing in popularity. Here is how one excellent critique introduces the concept:

'What are ‘Ecosystem Services’? At first hearing, they sound like a firm of consultants who help you repair your ailing ecosystem. In fact it’s the other way round, the sevice is provided by people with ecosystems to people who no longer have one, and who need one. For example if your forest, or your peat bog is absorbing carbon, it is providing a service to other people who are producing excessive CO2 and need something, somewhere to absorb it. Other ecosystem services include climate regulation, maintenance of biodiversity, water conservation and supply, and the preservation of aesthetic, cultural and spiritual values. The emerging view is that the people receiving these ecosystem services should start to pay for them.'(Sullivan, 2008).

Ecosystem services formed a major focus of the recent study known as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), which reported that ‘60 to 70% of our world’s ecosystem services are deteriorating, with dramatic consequences for those who are most dependent on their steady provision, such as subsistence farmers.’ There is an explicit admission that the concept of ecosystem services has been designed to increase the attractiveness of talk of environmental protection to the corporate sector: ‘The attractiveness of the “ecosystem services” concept is also largely due to its capacity to provide a unifying language between the economic, business and environmental communities; as beneficiaries of valuable services are identified, previously uninvolved actors are recognizing that they have a stake in conserving the environment’ (UNEP, n.d.: 2).

However, it may be an important cost if the planet’s intrinsic spiritual value is lost in the process of ‘costing the earth’. There are also difficulties in terms of establishing ownership rights over the areas of the world where ecosystems remain intact, largely due to low levels of industrialisation. Since the people living in these areas have less economic clout they may not be well placed to protect their rights over their land and their lifestyle which, paradoxically, is precisely what has preserved the ecosystem. As environmental pressures increase, subsistence farmers in the world’s poorer nations are threatened with displacement and loss of livelihood as their land is traded to provide carbon sinks and other ‘ecosystem services’ for the peoples of the richer world.

I also wonder what it does to us and our relationship with the planet when we think of it as providing us with services. What becomes of the awe and reverence that are more appropriate reactions? How is this attitude of expecting service different from that of exploiting resources which has surely caused our environmental problems?

Reducing this deeply spiritual relationship to one that can be counted - and even compensated - in monetary terms is to denigrate and belittle it. How could we think of paying our mother for breastfeeding, or even for making us a Sunday lunch. Imagine wiping the napkin across your mouth and then reaching for your wallet. Just as you mother does not offer you services which can be bought and sold, neither does the planet.

Ecosystem services is a dangerous concept and a piece of discourse we should consciously eschew. From a green perspective the earth is an abundant and generous provider. What we receive is always free, always given without expectation of reciprocity. So I would suggest that we deliberately counter this pernicious term with that of 'earthly gifts', which helps to reinforce a sentiment of gratitude and respect.

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