Linking Personal Sustainability to Ecosystem Services

If the personal is political, then the personal is also ecological. Our collective societal impacts on ecosystems are basically the result of cumulative personal choices, coupled with political laws and legislation that restrict/support those choices. Then again, those laws stem from shared personal values and choices that lead people to lobby for such political laws and legislation, which in turn impacts us personally… And the relationship spins on.

So, how about getting up close and personal with ecosystem services? I’m  not talking about willingness to pay surveys or other similar economic or group sociology studies here. There are some excellent pioneering studies going on regarding cultural services in this academic context such as the Chan et al. chapter on ‘Cultural services and non-use values’ in the the recent 2011 Natural Capital book. But, though related, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about here. No.

I’m talking campfire stories, slowly told in the firelight, crackling slowly, with the trees close at hand, and mosquitoes buzzing at your back. So you nestle in closer to the fire, where it is warm and safe. You. Burning wood in the forest, eating marshmallows, telling jokes.. then getting quiet. Looking up at the stars. Yes, I’m talking about you. You and your relationship with nature. Or me. One person at a time looking a bit more deeply into what ecosystem services personally means to them, asking questions like:  “How do my personal values connect to ecosystem services? What personal goals do I have related to ecosystem services?” Or more simply: “What does Mother Nature do for me? Conversely, what do I do for her? And, if I’m being a bit of an unaware brat in this relationship, how can I do more?”

These kind of questions on personal sustainability can be assessed through personal sustainability plans, similar to what Walmart has implemented for employees. However, as a Google search will soon show, these programs rarely, if ever, tie into ecosystem services specifically, assessing one’s direct connection to nature or the services it provides.

No direct hits for PSP and ES

For example, a Google search on “personal sustainability plans ecosystem services” does not lead to much at this time. The above general search leads to sites that are not relevant to the query. Applying a more targeted search for “personal sustainability plans” AND “ecosystem services” in Google leads to even less–a measly two pages of, again, unrelated sites.

This is definitely a knowledge gap in the “Cultural” domain of ecosystem services!

How people relate their own personal visions, values and lifestyle choices to nature’s services is a glaring gap in our personal and collective urban psyches. How we connect our values to nature is a central aspect of what determines collective behaviour that results in systemic impacts on natural systems…. and yet we have a dearth of tools to help people personally visualize and become more aware of these connections.

So, how can we create specific tools or assessments specifically to help individuals personally 1) assess where they are at, and then 2) create targets related to how they can, personally, understand and improve their interactions with the valuable services that nature provides? I would like to look into developing such an approach to helping people personally connecting to ecosystem services. If you are working on this or would like to help out, please let me know.

As a start, I came across a Personal Sustainability Action Plan Workbook by by that has exercises for visioning, values determination and more. It may be a bit mushy la la for the more analytical types, but it is an interesting start as an exercise for assessing how one personally, and culturally, relates to nature’s benefits.

So, digging right in, I  would love it if you would take the time to at least go through the visioning and values exercises on pp. 4-6 of the Workbook, and think in particular how your vision relates to nature. Remember that this is a positive visualization exercise, of seeing how you would like to have things be in a hypothetical future, which, though maybe a stretch on what is realistic, will allow you to connect to the kinds of things that motivate and inspire you.

Once you have done these two exercises, I would add an extra one to link your personal values assessment to ecosystem services for you. For instance, ask yourself something like:

  1. How are my vision and values connected and supported by benefits that I receive from nature?
  2. Brainstorm a list of the ways that I  benefit from the habitat, regulating, provisioning and cultural services that nature provides me, personally.
  3. Imagine what life would be like without nature providing these services for me. Which ones could I, or society replace? Which ones would be nearly impossible to replace?
  4. In visualizing the benefits I receive from nature, and how my life would be impacted if these benefits were taken away, how important are ecosystem services to my life?
  5. Considering the importance of nature’s services to me, personally, what am I willing to do to ensure that I am not negatively impacting nature’s capacity to keep providing these benefits in perpetuity?

And there it is, a rough and ready start to a Personal Sustainability Plan for Ecosystem Services. Making the personal, ecological. What do you think? Was it helpful or interesting for you to go through the exercise? Did it help you see your own personal connection to nature in a slightly different way? Is this simple assessment something that would be worth building out?

Please feel free to share any of your results or thoughts in the the poll or private feedback form just below, or the public comments farther down.