On the Joys of Nature Next Door, Cultural Ecosystem Services, and the Human Right to Nature

What does natural capital and cultural ecosystem services have to do with biophilia, nature deficit disorder, and the human right to nature? These topics are typically studied in rather separate contexts. My aim in this long read is to begin to connect the dots between these areas to develop a more holistic picture of our growing cultural relationship with nature in the west.

My Nature Next Door

I live in the Pacific Northwest on the Capilano River escarpment in North Vancouver. This area is known in the local tourist circuit through the Capilano Suspension Bridge and local hikes in the Capilano River Park. It’s a place of rugged contrasts. The river lies at the bottom of the steep Capilano Canyon, shown below.  The river itself is sometimes slow, clear, and slowly meandering along, and at other times it becomes a torrent of muddy waters (that once was so aggressive that I called the local authorities just to make sure we weren’t going to all be washed away in the flood!). The only reason why there are beautiful views of this river, like the one below where you only see nature in the shot, is because of laws. Laws that protect riparian areas in this case, and make it so that you cannot build within so many feet of a river. Thank-goodness for the river. Thank-goodness for the fish. Thank-goodness for me and my hungry camera.

CapilanoRiverCanyon_©MariaLavis

Capilano River from Cable Bridge showing people on trail lookout in the distance.

I count myself blessed to be able to live in a place that sits on the border between the built human landscape and the natural world. The birds one can spot from our house along the Capilano Canyon also frame the extremes, often being eagles or hummingbirds. The last few weeks, it has been raining in the lower mainland off and on (as it tends to in a coastal temperate rainforest). Imagine my surprise the other day I looked out from the kitchen window to find an eagle sunning itself in the trees looking down at the river. I don’t have a telephoto lens like the pros, but managed to capture a few shots.  (Click to go to Flickr)

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_14-49-53_DSC_0680_©MariaLavis

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_14-46-14_DSC_0662_©MariaLavis

What a joy to be able to drink my morning coffee that day while hanging out with this guy fluffing his feathers and spanning his wings out.  On the other side of our house, not 50 feet away, is one of the main routes into the downtown core (you can hear it along with the river in the video link at the bottom of this post). If I go out the front door and I’m walking on asphalt and heading down the street towards the city. Going out the back door is the opposite. It leads to a verdigris world that is a reminder of what the whole of the North Shore once must have looked like at one time (though the trees would have been way bigger; they razed them down at the beginning of the 20th Century in the Great Cut).

The Contentious Value of Cultural Ecosystem Services

In real estate talk, this kind of place is one with a ‘view’, and the economic value of properties with different natural views could be considered one way to measure how we ‘value’ nature. (You can also get a sense of the value of nature to us in the covers of architectural magazines that usually feature places looking out at pristine wilderness. I’d love to see someone who has done a survey of how much nature appears in these magazines. If anyone knows of one, let me know.) The beauty of nature usually doesn’t have an material price tag though, and falls into the realm of cultural ecosystem services, along with other ‘non-material‘ benefits like educational, spiritual or recreational services that humans derive from nature. Yet, in spite of the obvious importance of all of our collective deeply personal, and interpersonal relationships, values and experiences in and with nature, when it comes to measuring and taking into account natural capital, cultural ecosystem services is one of the areas that is often neglected in the research literature.

This notion of putting human economic values on nature rather than focusing on more traditional intrinsic values (such as biodiversity) is one that is hotly contested and debated within ecological circles these days (more on this in a future post). There are some who say that we need to value nature monetarily to better protect it, and then there are others who say that the monetary valuation of nature is counter productive and demeans the real, functional and intrinsic value of nature.

Personally, I think the answer to this debate is we need BOTH approaches.

Nature is not just one thing. It is not an either/or proposition. It is multidimensional, and, like the proverbial Buddhist diamond, it has many facets for us to see depending on where we are standing. Nature has economic value for things like timber and other natural resources, and it has as long as humans have been trading such things. It is also important to economically value nature when the government looks at options for development, which was when nature was traditionally externalized and neglected from the equation and decision making process. This has led to a systematic loss of nature globally over the last few decades which is starting to alarm many scientists. But, valuing nature can stop or slow this process. I have personally chatted with professors doing work in places like Indonesia who know that their work on valuing forest services helped in preventing logging in some areas because they could communicate that value through economic valuation sheets.

But this kind of valuation, in and of itself, is not enough. This is because, at the same time, nature still has other important values such as:

  • aesthetic value (as much if not more priceless than famous museum art which often strives to emulate nature, but never succeeding),
  • functional value (which is not just priceless, but absolutely necessary to our survival like climatic regulation and healthy soil creation),
  • biodiversity value (as someone with a background in behavioural ecology, I would like to note here that maintaining both nature’s genotypic and phenotypic capacity that has evolved over millions of years is key to maintaining diversity; keeping seed banks and zoos to preserve diversity is a last ditch effort because so much is lost when you take organisms out of their interconnected ecological niche that they often grow and learn to live in), and
  • even less talked about but often even more deeply important things like spiritual value (that thing that takes your breath away when you reach the view point on a hike; that thing that makes the guru sit by him/herself on the mountain; and that thing that makes the guru on the mountain become the guru to begin with).

Some of these values may seem intangible, but we are starting to see real effects of their loss.

On Establishing the Human Right to Nature

How do we get out of our silos?

One of the areas where I think that we could make strides in our ability to conserve nature and live in better harmony along side it is through some strategic collaborations to bridge some of the work being done now by the people working on cultural ecosystem services with the work of those who work in the area of biophiia, nature deficit disorder, and the human need for nature. This could also engage those working in the arts who have long known the value of nature, such as poets, authors, musicians and visual artists. For instance, get the people from the ecosystem services world together such as those at the  Natural Capital Project like Gretchen Daily (who was also integral to getting the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment off the ground), the people at TEEB like Pavan Sukhdev, and the folks from the Ecosystem Services Partnership like Robert Costanza in the same room talking to those on the biophiia and nature deficit end of the spectrum. These latter people would include E.O. Wilson who came up with the biophilia hypothesis, and others like S.R. Kellert and working in that vein. On the side of the children’s need for nature and nature deficit disorder work you have people like Richard Louv and the people at the Children & Nature Network. Get these talking to those cultural mavens like authors who care about nature literacy like Margaret Atwood, and the people at the Robert Bateman Foundation connecting kids with art. Add to this the people doing amazing work in ecopsychology and things like deep ecology such as Davd Abram, Bill Plotkin and Jay Griffiths. And get these talking to the people who know about law like the folks at Ecojustice and those who are the traditional lobbyists for nature, the major NGOs like the WWF, DSF, Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club.

The above random list, in no particular order, is just the tip of the ice burg of organizations and people. And, of course, there are the First Nations groups who have basically been trying to get the message across on the importance of the value for nature since European colonialists first landed on this continent, such as in the plight of the Nez Perce with Chief Toohoolhoolzote saying “...I belong to the land of which I came. The Earth is my Mother”, and similarly Chief Joseph saying, “The Earth must not be sold”, to the lament of Chief Dan George and more recent protests to safeguard the land against development going on across North America by many tribes. In so many ways Aboriginal groups are leading us in the theory in this space on how to reconnect, and some of us are finally, slowly, getting the message. And last but not least, there are the parent groups, those amazing moms and dads out there who get it and want their kids to grow up with at least as good of a natural legacy as they inherited.

I guess what I’m saying here is that in spite of all the great work that everyone is doing in their respective areas, the loss of nature on every continent is a collective problem, and for that we need a cross-cutting, collaborative platform that brings us all together on this shared issue. In their own ways, the above people and groups are all essentially talking about the same thing here: about preserving the legacy of the deep and meaningful, and absolutely essential, role of nature in our lives (whether we are individually aware of how much we depend on nature or not). Of course, the work that different groups do in their silos is important, but I believe we need some silo bashing on this issue and come together in some way to make this happen. This touches on climate. This touches on biodiversity. This touches on everything we get from nature.

Of course, protecting the natural legacy that preserves us is what responsible governments are supposed to do as part of safeguarding the public good, but this isn’t something I’m about to rely on my elected officials to be proactive about any more.

(So… Ideas on how to do this? I’m all ears.)

Sure, this is about our ‘personal’ experiences with nature. And, this is about the so-called ‘intangible’ services that nature provides. But just because it is subjective or intangible does not make it less important. In so many ways, it makes it more important. Like civil rights which come down to our subjective, intangible experiences in relationship with one another. Well, we also form relationships with nature. We can develop our capacity to have experiences in nature and grow our relationship with nature to the point where when people lose nature they grieve as though they’ve lost a loved one this is just one indication of how nature is part of our humanity, our birthright. It’s a matter of culture. It’s a matter of health. It’s a matter of survival. It’s a matter of making the world worth surviving in. And it should be a matter protected, like riparian zones, like other civil rights, in law.

However, just as nature has been externalized from our balance sheets, it has been externalized from many legal considerations. I’d like to note here that I am not one to jump on the bandwagon and blame big business, government and the oil companies for this situation, nor for the depletion and pollution of nature around the world. I have a healthy appreciation of,  the mythical Promethean forces that first brought ancestral humans the powers that came with harnessing fire. There is something to be said for human ingenuity, industrial productivity, and the level of cooperation necessary to run things like international corporations and markets. But those markets are part of the bigger ecosystem we share with all of life on this planet, and we all need to get the memo that nature is not the infinite thing we thought it was only just a few decades ago.

We have all benefited from the warmth and energy of combustion in some way or another, but we also all benefit from the air we breath and water we drink and so much more that the living systems on this planet provide. We are, ourselves, through our respiration, something like cybernetic combustion machines that are integrated systems with multiform other systems on Earth (for a longer read my recent essay has more on my view on this).

It’s about finding balance

The point I’m getting to here is that we need to collaborate as well as we do on international markets in order to  achieve more balance with our natural heritage and life support system here, or things could verily get tragic. I’m not just inferring the potential effects of climate change. Recent research confirms that humanity has crossed four of nine identified planetary boundaries. There are systems on this Earth that have been relatively constant for millions of years that we are tampering with. As someone who has studied climatology, biogeochemistry, and ecology, and that professionally writes with a strong degree of conservatism, I am willing to admit that the real potential of tipping planetary boundaries seriously freaks me out. But I’m not a doomsayer, or about pointing the finger of blame. Because that finger points at me, too. It points at all of us, but many of us these days in environmental or ecological circles seem to be pointing fingers, and this often leads to a kind of antagonism that I have seen stifle actually making headway on these important issues.

So, no, no pointing fingers. Instead, this is about growing up as communities, as societies and as nations to our collective impact. It’s about flexing our responsibility, that wing that makes us fly along with its twin that we prefer to talk about, freedom.

The more of us there are in a defined space, the more rules we need to live healthily and harmoniously. The Earth is our defined space, and our communities within it, and more of us there are, every year. So, how do we create social, civilizing, rules for ourselves that help us to live with more, not less, balance with natural systems, going forward? As mentioned, I think part of the solution lies in the field of human rights. (I also agree with those who are trying to instill rights for nature, and power to them, but I think we would get farther in trying to build on the already established lexicon of human rights in this space.)

As mentioned in my last blog post, my own view is that humans have an innate need for, and therefore, an inalienable right to access nature. This is due to our collective need for nature’s systems to keep functioning, as well as due to our personal needs for nature. This blog post focuses on the latter. As I delineate in the essay attached to that post, the jury is out, we do need nature. Personally. Physiologically. Emotionally. Cognitively. Physically. Medically. We have these needs for nature in ways that are also becoming less and less intangible and more and more concrete the more we study this topic. There are so many lines of evidence most likely because we are innately hard wired to live in nature to begin with. When we are cut off from that birthright we begin to see the adverse consequences. Deprivation of nature affects all of our senses. It affects our health. It affects our well being. Intrinsically, but also, now, thanks to the multitude of researchers doing work in this area, measurably so.

Whether it be enjoying the tree out a hospital window, nature next door, the park down the street, or that national park you’ve been meaning to visit for years, we all should have the right to access nature and be able to satisfy our human needs. This isn’t just about ‘benefits’. This is about the base levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Food. Water. Air. In addition to these there are a multitude of other factors that we glean along nature’s continuum (from nature next door to the tangled wilds) that we are measurably less well without. So, this is not about a right to some fluffy nature benefits. This is about establishing basic human rights based on fundamental human needs.

Let’s stop externalizing nature from human rights

Similar to how nature has been externalized from being incorporated into our economic equations because it was not too very long ago considered infinite and ubiquitous, it has also been externalized from the human rights conversation.

It’s about time we take up that conversation. And soon. We all read the news on how natural landscapes, resources and systems are disappearing. Yet, the majority of us are like the frog sitting in the pot of slowly warming water about this issue. Would people sit back and take it if their rights were abused in the workplace? Would people sit back and take it if they went out and were discriminated against on racial grounds? So why do we sit back and take it as our natural legacy, our ancient birthright, is destroyed all around us?

This is not a new idea. There are people working in this space. There are even precedents, like ‘every man’s right’ to roam and wild harvest in Norway, Allemansrätten in Sweden, the IUCN’s Children’s Right to Nature initiative, and grounds closer to home, like the common law right to access and transit navigable waters, and other shared rights. If we remember the First Nations adage that we do not own the land but belong to it instead, we can maybe make some gains here in how to collectively be better stewards, and live more harmoniously with it by adding another tool to the conservation beltthe human right to nature.

There is much that could be gained from establishing the human right to nature in law. Just like we have laws to protect riparian areas within cities I mentioned at the start of this post, if we established the fundamental human right to nature, then we could establish secondary laws based on those, such as laws to protect natural areas where our kids can go outside and play in healthy landscapes and connect to something besides the internet and social media. One of my favourite examples of this is the Children’s Forest that was recently established here in BC on Cortes Island. Imagine if all greenbelts were extended in this way as a trust legacy for our children to be able to play as their great grandparents once did? (I for one would support fences around those areas and cameras so that they can also place in relative safety from predators, human and otherwise.)

Just like we have laws to protect our water quality, we can add to those laws so that all humans have the right to access nature and certain needs provided by nature, regardless of race or economic background (which is not currently the case in many areas where poor people are the ones who get polluted). Just like we have laws for water, we can establish laws for the air we breath, and we can find legal instruments to ensure that in their education, our children, our future citizens, understand the value of nature to them. Understand how something intangible can be not only tangible, but a part of you. Walt Whitman said it perhaps the best, and his words often haunt me:

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover,
And the song of the phoebe-bird…

By working together, those of us who value our right to this natural legacy can go farther to protect it so that we have the legal muscle to help nature provide our food and water and other resources, keep functioning to provide our critical life support services, as providing other ‘intangibles’ like the joy of just hanging out with an eagle for a while.

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_©MariaLavis

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About Maria Lavis
Exploring questions on how well (or not) humans and nature are getting along.

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