What’s Up with the Discrepancy?

I recently read a Tweet by the World Resources Institute linking to an article by my local newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, titled, “A Humanitarian Emergency on a Global Scale“. This article regarding humans pushing the tipping points of planetary natural systems, including climate change, gave me an idea for an analogy.

This is not the first time I’ve read news of leading scientists making such dire claims. (i.e. 1, 2, 3) This is also not the first time that I shake my head thinking how a large section of our controlling political leaders will deny, or at best, delay actions on these warnings.

To me, as with most of those with any training  related to physical Earth systems, watching the recent political denial of these warnings has felt like stepping into a Looking Glass world of double speak where truth and fiction have been so contorted and inverted that it’s hard to know right from left, let alone good from bad.

Most people don’t spend their time studying climate, which is a complicated phenomenon. Why should they? Just like most people aren’t trained oncologists, who study cancer, another complicated phenomenon. However, for some reason, when our oncologist tells us we have cancer, we sit up and listen. We trust what they, as an expert on the subject tell us, and then we act accordingly. We change our life if need be. Quit work. Eat kale. Whatever it takes.

So, when thousands of climate scientists around the world tell us we have a dire climate change problem, that puts the future of the entire Earth at risk? Well then, in that case, we just go back to business as usual.

So, what’s up with the discrepancy?

To illustrate, here is a little story:

I wasn’t feeling very well a few months ago. I was getting internal pains and fever. I thought it was a temporary thing, a bad case of the flu. But it kept persisting, so I went to the doctor. She said she’d run some tests.

A week later she calls me and tells me the tests indicate I have cancer and they’d like to do some more tests. Those tests end up confirming the original results, and adding that my time on Earth as the functional person I have been may be severely limited.

Shaken up by this, I go to my boss to tell him the news. Imagine my shock when he tells me this:

“Cancer? What do you mean cancer? Well you and some doctors might believe in ‘cancer’, but let me tell you, they are a bunch of quacks who are just trying to take your money, fabricating stories of disease and dire predictions like crazy preachers on pulpits. And you? You’re acting like some kind of hypochondriac, feeding into their ridiculous claims.”

I plead my case. I cough up blood and he says it’s inconclusive and probably psychosomatic. I say I’ll show him the tests; they are based on repeatable concrete evidence by trained experts. He says he doubts whether they really know what they are talking about. After all, I look like I can go back to work to him.

Seeing that none of this is getting through to my boss, I say that there is a chance it could kill me, and I need time to be with my family and friends. He then just laughs at me and tells me that I’ve really gone off the deep end, and that I’d better go back to work… or else.

Ok, so I go and take my boss to court. It makes the news even. Politicians start to make statements because it turns out that other people’s bosses are denying their cancer too. And what does our local political leader say about the situation to the media?

“Cancer doesn’t really exist,” she says. “They can’t really prove it. They certainly don’t know how to cure it after soooo many years of research and expense. What a waste of time and tax payer’s dollars!

And, after all, people are dying of natural causes all the time. How can you say it’s caused by cancer? Maybe it’s something else that’s making people feel bad.

This so-called cancer, it’s also bad for the economy. It’s blown out of proportion, and we’ve decided that until we absolutely know what it is and how to cure it that it’s business as usual. People who think they have cancer should just go back to work.”

Ok ok. So I made that up. I do not have cancer. A crass example, not in the best of taste. Cancer is actually a real and very serious problem that millions around the world face. I have several relatives who have passed away from cancer, and it is a disease that disheartens and destroys lives. Yes, it is certainly real.

As real as the Earth going around the sun. As real as anthropogenic climate change. These are all measurable physical phenomena.

Climate change related causes have already been responsible for global mortality. The prognosis is also that climate change has the potential to affect billions, and our children, and our children’s children.

So what’s up with the discrepancy?

Both cancer and climate change are related to phenomena we don’t completely understand, and both have potentially dire results. One has to do with effects on an individual organism, the other has to do with effects on a planetary system.

Ok, I’ll admit, the scale of the latter may be harder to comprehend, and understand, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore warnings regarding its health any less seriously than to our own.

But we do. We take one way more seriously than we do the other. The difference is that we can literally feel it in our bones. We see our friends and relatives suffer directly from it. And so we tend to listen to the advice of the experts in their field about it.

The other? Well, it’s quite the opposite for the other. Well, maybe unless you live in Africa or the Maldives.

So, imagine for a minute, or a good few seconds, the kind of shock you would feel…

… if your boss and political leaders said something to you like the statements in the above cancer analogy. Well, this is somewhere on the scale that scientists who study climate change and earth systems science feel when years of their hard nosed research with concrete results they present on are categorically questioned, denied, and then followed up with disproportional cuts to research budgets. (Not to mention gag orders on federal scientists.)

But somehow, in North America this treatment of the problem of climate change is passed off as normal.

It’s about time we realized that the problem here isn’t with climate science and its prognosis. It’s with our leaders telling us the problem isn’t really there, then telling us to go back to work.

It’s with us.

Accepting the unacceptable, and just carrying on with business as usual.

Yeah, so forget the kale. Forget the radiation treatment.

If you deny it’s there, then it doesn’t exist.


The Thorny Issue of Stacking

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) projects are rather like roses. The blossoms are the desired lovely benefits.  At the same time the cliché stands, and every rose has its thorns. In the case of PES projects, the large obvious thorns include things like unintended perverse incentives that lead to issues like leakage.  Then there are those smaller thorns, the kind that break off in your fingers like slivers, and are often far more annoying to contend with. Thorns like stacking.

Stacking PES

How to deal with stacking is currently a hot issue for policy makers to contend with.  But what is stacking to begin with?

The concept of stacking has arisen basically stems from land owners/managers and project developers saying, “Hey, there are many PES programs sprouting up out there. Can I benefit from more than one of them at once for what I’m doing on this land?” Or, they might also be saying something like, “Well, I’d love to be able to conserve my land instead of logging it, but I make way more felling trees on my land than I would with just a, say, carbon project, so can you throw me a better incentive to make it more worth my while to engage in more sustainable options?”

In the first case, stacking would likely bring a higher net gain to the land owners and project developers than one project alone, and in the second case, stacking actually enables some projects to happen that probably wouldn’t otherwise fly. So, we already have complexity here, and a caveat on debates on stacking is that when people talk about stacking they aren’t always talking about the same thing. Many opponents to stacking do so because of the first reason, and the difference between these two examples, brings up a second niggly thorn. Additionality.


Additionality is a concept that is integral to developing carbon mitigation projects, but has not been widely applied in the PES world. Additionality is basically a tenet to ensure that GHG mitigation actually takes place in a commodity system, stemming from provisions in the Kyoto Protocol under the Clean Development Mechanism. The central provision for additionality ensures that if developed countries are going to get out of making costly direct GHG reductions themselves, and buy cheaper offsets , that the money from those offsets better go towards causing GHG reductions that would NOT have otherwise happen. i.e. Those offsets have to be additional, otherwise the money is just being spent on activities, providing extra padding to the pockets of those that would have undergone those activities anyhow. So, under Kyoto, it is very important that offset money should go towards making reduction activities happen that couldn’t happen in the absence of the money (and sometimes technology/expertise) of the offsets and offset project developers. Within the carbon world, this provision for additionality has also filtered down into the developing voluntary carbon offsets as well. If you are purchasing offsets that aren’t additional, you might just be wasting your money.

In the PES world, however, there is no international agreement. No potential global compliance system to regulate the various ecosystem services. And, no mandated additionality. And in many cases of PES, this principle of additionality isn’t really necessary. This is because many PES projects are voluntary and many ecosystem services don’t involve something that can be commodified, so offsetting and additionality are harder to define and so haven’t been part of the lexicon. Here are some examples:

Example 1: Biodiveristy

Say someone develops a one-off ecosystem services biodiversity project to protect and endangered species in a tropical jungle. The jungle is obviously disappearing. The animal is obviously threatened. Money is raised to buy rights to land or land itself as well as manage it buy hiring rangers to stop poaching etc. A large company is recruited to voluntarily help invest in the project because it uses this species as part of its brand logo. The cost is willingly incurred by the company to help support the company’s sustainability initiatives, brand and integrity, not because they have to due to legislation. In this case, the money spent to save the species isn’t being spent to offset killing the species somewhere else. And it is relatively obvious that without the money the species would likely go extinct under the status quo.

Example 2: Water

A large company is using up a lot of water in a local watershed. They have been pressured and lobbied by local citizens and environmental groups for drawing down the water table. In order to protect the regional water, the company then invests in protecting another local watershed so that the water there is not depleted. In this case, although the activity of protecting the watershed is done in part to offset water loss in another area, this isn’t necessarily measured unit for unit, the way a commodity like carbon would be, and in all likelihood, the other watershed was not going to be protected anyhow.

Differences with Carbon and PES Worlds

There are several differences between the carbon world and PES world that affect additionality including:

  1. Carbon is a commodity. PES are plural and often not able to be ‘commodified’. They can’t be traded or offset necessarily one for one.
  2. Carbon is legislated under the CDM and regulated under many rigorous voluntary standards, such as VCS, that mandate additionality for projects. PES doesn’t have this history, and because of the diversity of different kinds of ecosystem services, it is more complicated to figure out how additionality applies.
  3. In the carbon world, many projects could be undertaken for reasons besides GHG mitigation. Updating heating boilers, or manufacturing technology happens all the time, because it helps to raise production efficiency as well as lower costs. These activities also happen to lower GHG emissions. So, in this case it is very important to establish that a project is being undertaken not just for the former reasons. In the PES world, conservation projects are relatively rare under the business as usual scenario, so additionality is not such a priority.
  4. Carbon is one thing, and other GHGs can be compared to carbon through the use of global warming potentials GWP (so, methane = 21 carbons). ES are diverse, complex and confusing.

So, why apply additionality to PES projects? As mentioned at the start of this article, the issue mostly arises when a project is going to be undertaken on a piece of land, where there is another project going on. There is a piece of land, lets say, undergoing an activity of avoided deforestation to sequester carbon and generate carbon credits. The potential arises to also create water and biodiversity projects in the park. Should new PES projects be allowed since the land is already conserved for carbon mitigation? This is the question that policy makers are now dealing with, and the question I shall expand on further in a subsequent article, so stay tuned…

Glossary Update

At long last, I’ve added some new terms to the Glossary!

As it is,  you can reach the  Glossary when I’ve linked a specific term in a blog post to it, or you can also click on the Glossary tab above at any time. The intent of the Glossary is to be a work in progress, updated as the field develops, of common terms used by carbon and ecosystem services professionals.

This update is long overdue, but let me know if you have any suggestions or edits to the new terms I’ve added below:

  • Additionality
  • Co-benefits
  • Fungibility
  • Leakage
  • Stacking
  • Validation
  • Verification

Defense and Climate Change – Little Room for Doubt

“Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.” – United States Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review 2010

I’ve been sitting on the above quote for a while now. The thing that really stirkes me about it—aside from the surety (notice the two “will”s which do not leave a lot of doubt in the matter)—is that this quote is not from the EPA. It’s not from the UN. It’s not from some scientific panel or from some university somewhere… It’s from an official document of the US Department of Defense. No matter what one’s political views, no matter where one lives, when one reads something put out by US “intelligence”, especially when inside an official military document, one sits up a bit straighter and pays a little more attention.  After all, many of the last century’s scientific advances had their start in the military (or were taken up by the military). When a Department of Defense talks science, they don’t mess around.

The quotes from the Defense Review stand out in particular with all of the political ‘debate’ on climate change in the last couple of years (noting that the science IS clear on the key points of global warming and there is consensus on the call to action to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and that it is basically politicians and certain lobby groups that are  finding ways to reword, delay, de-fund and ignore scientists).

In particular, many climate change deniers also fall into the camp that shows strong support for the military, so I found this report by the US military to offer, frankly, an interesting discrepancy. Enough of a discrepancy that it makes one wonder why there is any doubt on climate change left.


Here are some more quotes from the document (emphasis mine):

“Climate change will affect DoD in two broad ways. First, climate change will shape the operating environment, roles, and missions that we undertake.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program, composed of 13 federal agencies, reported in 2009 that climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters. Among these physical changes are increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the oceans and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows…

While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world. In addition, extreme weather events may lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response both within the United States and overseas. In some nations, the military is the only institution with the capacity to respond to a large-scale natural disaster. Proactive engagement with these countries can help build their capability to respond to such events. Working closely with relevant U.S. departments and agencies, DoD has undertaken environmental security cooperative initiatives with foreign militaries that represent a nonthreatening way of building trust, sharing best practices on installations management and operations, and developing response capacity

Second, DoD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on our facilities and military capabilities. The Department already provides environmental stewardship at hundreds of DoD installations throughout the United States and around the world, working diligently to meet resource efficiency and sustainability goals as set by relevant laws and executive orders. Although the United States has significant capacity to adapt to climate change, it will pose challenges for civil society and DoD alike, particularly in light of the nation’s extensive coastal infrastructure. In 2008, the National Intelligence Council judged that more than 30 U.S. military installations were already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels. DoD’s operational readiness hinges on continued access to land, air, and sea training and test space. Consequently, the Department must complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its missions and adapt as required.

In this regard, DoD will work to foster efforts to assess, adapt to, and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Domestically, the Department will leverage the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, a joint effort among DoD, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency, to develop climate change assessment tools. Abroad, the Department will increase its investment in the Defense Environmental International Cooperation Program not only to promote cooperation on environmental security issues, but also to augment international adaptation efforts. The Department will also speed innovative energy and conservation technologies from laboratories to military end users. The Environmental Security and Technology Certification Program uses military installations as a test bed to demonstrate and create a market for innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies coming out of the private sector and DoD and Department of Energy laboratories. Finally, the Department is improving small-scale energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at military installations through our Energy Conservation Investment Program.

The effect of changing climate on the Department’s operating environment is evident in the maritime commons of the Arctic. The opening of the Arctic waters in the decades ahead which will permit seasonal commerce and transit presents a unique opportunity to work collaboratively in multilateral forums to promote a balanced approach to improving human and environmental security in the region. In that effort, DoD must work with the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security to address gaps in Arctic communications, domain awareness, search and rescue, and environmental observation and forecasting capabilities to support both current and future planning and operations. To support cooperative engagement in the Arctic, DoD strongly supports accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As climate science advances, the Department will regularly reevaluate climate change risks and opportunities in order to develop policies and plans to manage its effects on the Department’s operating environment, missions, and facilities. Managing the national security effects of climate change will require DoD to work collaboratively, through a whole-of-government approach, with both traditional allies and new partners.”

And so there it is. It touches on climate change assessment, risk analysis, impacts, mitigation, adaptation, extreme weather, sea level rise, energy efficiency and renewable projects, and the opening of Arctic waters. It’s all there.

The only thing missing is mass recognition in North America that anthropogenic climate change is a fact. Enough of a fact that there is enough supporting measured and statistically significant data out there to make our own military intelligence design programs and strategies around it, and designate it as a significant security risk. So, if deniers don’t take science for fact, or at least a high risk factor, and if they wont take the advice of our own military intelligence as pursuasive, then perhaps they have argued themselves right off the table of logical debate.

So, perhaps it is time to put the unfounded politicized aspects of this debate to rest, and finally get on with taking some reasonable mitigation actions?

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 kitchentablesustainability.com 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.

Ecosystem Services, Redefined

DictionaryAs often happens in nascent fields, terms are debated and redefined. This has recently happened to the definition of Ecosystem Services itself by TEEB in Chapter 1 of their recent publication The Ecological and Economic Foundations. They argue for replacing “Supporting Services” with “Habitat Services”. I agree, and my reason why is below.

My own old definition, based on the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, is below.

The Old Definition

Ecosystem Services (ES) can represent the actual service benefits, such as waste assimilation, that are provided by ecosystem functions, but usually refer to ecosystem goods and services collectively.

ES consist of the flows of value to human societies as a result of the condition of ecosystem function and natural capital in the following areas:

  1. Provisioning Services—These are the products obtained from ecosystems, including wild foods, crops, fibre, fuel, genetic resources, biochemicals/pharmaceuticals and natural medicines, ornamental resources, fresh water, plant-derived medicines and other natural resources.
  2. Regulating Services—These are the benefits obtained from the regulation of the physical, chemical and biological processes between organisms and their environments. These include the regulation of air quality, climate, erosion, pollination, diseases/pests, natural hazard regulation (e.g., mangroves), and water purification/waste treatment.
  3. Supporting Services—Supporting services are those that are necessary for the production of all other ES. For example, nutrient cycling, photosynthesis and soil formation. Supporting Services differ from the others in that their impacts on people are often indirect or occur over a very long time, whereas changes in the other categories have relatively direct and short-term impacts. Some services, like erosion regulation, can be categorized as both a supporting and a regulating service, depending on the time scale and immediacy of their impacts on people.
  4. Cultural Services—These are the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences. For example, these include recreation, ecotourism, spiritual and aesthetic values, sense of place, social relations (such as differing between fishing and agrarian communities), cultural heritage, First Nations values and cultural practices, education and knowledge systems.

I always had some issues with this definition being a bit vague around “Supportive Services”. It seemed that the definition varied depending on which publication you looked at, and it seemed to overlap with several of the other categories. TEEB has recognized that this overlapping could potentially lead to double counting of ecosystem services in inventories, and recommends that Supporting Services be replaced with “Habitat Services”. Hence, I will be removing this definition from the Glossary for this site and replacing it with the new definition based on the TEEB revision below.

The New Definition

ES consist of the flows of value to human societies as a result of the condition of ecosystem structure, process/function and extent of natural capital in the following areas:

  1. Provisioning Services—These are the products derived from nature including food (i.e. fish, game), water, (i.e. drinking, irrigation), raw materials (i.e. timber, fibre, fertilizer), genetic resources (i.e. medicinal), medicinal resources (i.e. biochemical products), ornamental resources (i.e. pet trade, fashion, artisan material)
  2. Regulating Services—These are the benefits obtained from the regulation of the physical, chemical and biological processes between organisms and their environments. These include the regulation of air quality, climate, erosion, pollination, biological regulation (i.e. seed dispersal), extreme event moderation, waste treatment (i.e. water purification), and soil fertility maintenance.
  3. Habitat Services—There are two services directly linked to habitat which are the habitat for species (such as nurseries for migratory species), and as gene-pool ‘protectors’. The latter refers to the necessity to maintain natural habitat to allow natural selection to take place, which is the basis for the diversity of life on Earth, and to protect existing gene pools at healthy levels.
  4. Cultural Services—These are the non-material benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, inspiration, and aesthetic experiences. For example, these include recreation, ecotourism, spiritual and aesthetic values, sense of place, social relations (such as differing between fishing and agrarian communities), cultural heritage, First Nations values and cultural practices, education and knowledge systems.

If you are still curious, or want to know more about what constitutes Ecosystem Services you can go to the TEEB Chapter 1 reference directly and check out page 19, the table on page 21 and Appendix 2 on page 40 for a full breakdown. The TEEB source also provides reference to the original references by Costanza, de Groot and Daily that form the basis of the new categorization of Ecosystem Services.

Ecological Economics


Eco- from the Greek, οἶκος, oikos, meaning “house”.

Economics. Ecology. Both words start with the same etymological root, but historically, that’s about where the similarity between the two fields of study ends.

Ecology is the study of the relation of living organisms with each other and their surroundings.  Or, one could say the study of the larger “house” and the creatures–including us–in it.

Economics is the study of the management the production and consumption of goods and services, or the management of the “house”.

So when you get back to basic definitions, it’s odd to think that these two fields have been so disparate, and often in conflict, over most of the last century. This is where the new field of Ecological Economics comes in.

Unlike ecological economics, which is transdisciplinary, the traditional field of environmental economics is a subfield of classical economics that looks at human systems as largely apart from environmental ones, and also looks at the nature of exchanges (such as natural resource extraction and pollution) between them. In this classical view, nature is taken to be an infinite source of natural capital (which has led to externalization of this natural capital), supplemented with the the theoretical addendum that when nature does run out, it can be substituted with human capital.

Ecological economics takes some of the assumptions of environmental economics to task. It differs from environmental economics in that it views human economic systems as being embedded and interdependent with ecological ones, such that human capital cannot substitute for degraded or lost natural capital, especially when it comes to externalities impacting essential ecosystem services or functions. Ecological economics also acknowledges the limits of natural capital, and seeks to reduce its externalization.


What is the Ecological Economics Problem?

“Tools, insatiable wants and the potential danger of ignorance place humans in a unique position of being able to alter their ecosystems in ways that jeopardize their own social and economic structures and processes. While any species could exceed its own natural ecosystem’s carrying capacity or diminish that capacity to the point of self-extinction, only the human species has both the will and capacity to jeopardize itself, as well as the will and capacity to avoid it.”

Farber & Bradley

What do you think? Have humans reached, or are they reaching the carrying capacity of the Earth? Is there a problem? Could ecological economics tools lead to a practical way to fix it? I’d love to hear your thoughts via the comments.


If you want to dig deeper, main theorists in this area to check out include:

The field has been influenced on the work of several theorists (whose works have largely since been critiqued and updated) including:


The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

Where can you go to learn more about ecological economics? A good an easy start would be to check out this handy online e-book “An Introduction to Ecological Economics“.

In addition, there are some organizations that specialize in the study of ecological economics:

  • Gund Institute for Ecological Economics: Located at the University of Vermont, “The Gund Institute is a transdisciplinary research, teaching, and service organization focused on developing integrative solutions to society’s most pressing problems…”
  • The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE): “Ecological economics exists because a hundred years of disciplinary specialization in scientific inquiry has left us unable to understand or to manage the interactions between the human and environmental components of our world…Ecological economics is based on the assumption that the economy is a subsystem of a larger ecological life support system. Understanding this relationship is central to meeting humanity’s current environmental challenges, as well as building a sustainable future. Ecological economists strive for an ecologically sustainable, socially equitable, and economically efficient future.”
  • The Canadian Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE): “We recognize that economies of communities, regions, and countries are imbedded in and dependent upon nature’s capacity to sustain ecological goods and services for present and future generations. The CANSEE mandate is to promote an understanding of this reality through research, education and practice, and to inform policy development and decision-making in government, communities, businesses and other organizations.”
  • Ecolgical Economics (Journal): “The journal is concerned with extending and integrating the study and management of “nature’s household” (ecology) and “humankind’s household” (economics). This integration is necessary because conceptual and professional isolation have led to economic and environmental policies which are mutually destructive rather than reinforcing…”

The Looking Glass World of PES

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Through the Looking Glass

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Land on Earth is finite. The homeostatic mechanisms of the Earth’s systems have functional limits. We’ve come to the point in our population and industrial systems where companies and governments are carving up the last of Earth’s wild spaces. We’ve also come to the point where we are overwhelming some of the Earth’s biogeochemical systems. Long term global government initiatives to mitigate and sequester greenhouse gases, protect biodiversity, and conserve water are not meeting their targets. So what’s a girl to do?

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

International organizations and governments are usually well intentioned, but they move slowly. They need to take the time to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s with utmost scientific and ethical process. If they do not they would be taken to the wringer. In comparison, market forces are very efficient at growth and development. Furthermore, lobby groups (often funded by market actors) can stall government initiatives, and politics can become mired in national and international debate.  But in this case that debate is stalling taking action on a process that is going on regardless. Market forces will carve up the remainder of the resources on this planet as efficiently as they can. They have money behind them, and money makes things happen. But what if those market forces could be turned in a new direction?

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first…”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Payments for Ecosystem (or Environmental) Services, or PES, refer to the payments to land owners or users for preserving the ecosystem function/integrity of their land rather than engaging in other forms of ecologically degrading economic activity. The brilliance of putting a price on nature, as well a cost on its degradation, is that those efficient market forces mentioned above are then turned up on their head towards protective, rather than exploitative behaviours on natural systems.

So, for example, if there is more profit in protecting a forest for carbon, then market forces will tend to protect more forests.  If there is a competitive edge in restoring mangroves, then mangroves will be restored.

The issue arises in that business men are not ecologists. Sometimes, the rush for the economic incentive overrides the initial intent of ES protection. There have been cases where virgin forests are clear cut in order to plant “carbon forests”, or situations where land users say they will not cut down a forest in one place–thereby obtaining carbon offsets for them–only to go and cut down forest elsewhere. This is termed “leakage” in the industry.  For these, and other reasons, ecologists and conservation managers often mistrust those from business and industry, but these barriers can be overcome through transparent dialogue and setting up of robust standards. The work being done on REDD and REDD+ is a prime example.

In the last several years people from public, private and NGO circles are starting to realize they have shared goals in the ES arena, forge partnerships and engage in collaborative projects. Although their backgrounds, perspectives and language may be different, I firmly believe that through such multidisciplinary efforts the theory behind ecosystems services can effectively be translated into action.  Putting a value on ecosystem services that are attached to these resources, is a way in which market forces can still happen, research budgets can be met, profits can still be shared, quarterly reports to shareholders still look good, AND Earth systems can be protected, and even replenished, in the process.

What Does Your Ideal World Look Like?

Natural flows
Industrial  Flows
Industrial Flows (Image by Hubert Blanz)


If you could redesign your world any way you want, how would it look?  How big is your vision? Is it just about you, your car, your house, your travel, and your bling? Or does it involve your friends, your family, your neighbours, your town, your country, and other countries too?

What happens if you extend the vision of your ideal world 2 years, 10 years, 100 years down the line? Will that vision work if the 8 billion other people who are scheduled to share the world with you by 2020 also want the same thing? How about for the 14 billion people that may be around in 2100?

These are the kinds of questions that only a few eccentrics, scientists and philosophers posed a hundred years ago. Now, they are questions that face us all. We are coming to realize something that humans never even conceived of for thousands of years of civilization. Not only natural resources (like fossil fuel and rare earth metals) are limited, but nature’s capacity to provide us with renewable services (like providing pure groundwater, and healthy soil), as well as filter out all the waste we put out has limits too. In total, around 60% of the Earth’s Ecosystem Services (ES) have been degraded in just 50 years (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Do we want to shrug our shoulders, say who can really know at such large complicated scales, and keep inadvertently pushing the bar on this one? I, for one, don’t.

So, how, with the given way the world works, can we prevent overwhelming natural systems and potentially causing them to fail? We have come to see that when these systems do fail, the cost of clean up is mind boggling, such as when there is an oil spill, or when an entire fishery collapses, such as the cod on the Grand Banks of Canada.   As a result of realizing how tenuous the situation is, over the last few years an international movement has sprung up to monetize nature’s services.  It might not be a perfect route, and it may be fraught with issues along the way, but the idea is that it will be oh so worth it if we make the effort.

Monetizing Ecosystem Services is also the best idea I have seen to make the most effective changes the most efficiently to address global issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, and water supply in the absence of strong government leadership.

And if we don’t… well, this isn’t a blog about future doomsday scenarios. There are enough blogs on the Internet catering to that fair.  The idea here is to look around and see what we really value keeping, as well as what we can, and most likely should, change for the better.

Integrating Ecosystem Services


Industrial Moscow, by Alexander Petrenko

School of Art, Media & Design, Singapore

Integrating the Right Things

“Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.”
-Mark Twain

Ecosystem Services (ES) are the flows of benefits that we obtain from natural systems. The world’s ecosystems provide services with which we are interconnected and upon which we are dependent. For instance, ecosystems help regulate our clean water supply, sequester greenhouse gases, provide materials such as trees that we harvest as natural resources, and provide the environments that we come to know and love as individuals and societies.

Biologists, ecologists, natural resource managers, philosophers and poets have been talking about similar flows within and from ecosystems to human systems for decades. So what’s the big deal with ecosystem services now?

The new part is that the knowledge of the limits of these systems—and how vulnerable they are to human impact—has not been incorporated into classical economic valuation systems. When we talk about ES in economic terms, we often refer to natural capital. This natural capital has been externalized from market systems, and as a result the provisioning, supporting and regulating functions of ecosystems have been significantly degraded.

This is a blog about the mindful re-integration of nature. Making the externalized internal. Not only to our monetary systems, but to our social systems, our cities and homes, and in the end, ourselves.

An Economy of Mind (Image by Ben Goossens)