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

Advertisements

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.

An Astrobiology Perspective on Ecosystem Services

“Biota control the basic chemical conditions on the surface of the Earth. With an atmosphere containing 21% oxygen, the chemical environment on Earth stands in start contrast to that on our sterile planetary neighbors–Mars and Venus. The metabolic activities of organisms, which link oxidation and reduction reactions, produce the relatively stable conditions on Earth that are conductive to the persistence of life.”

– William Schlesinger, Biogeochemistry 2nd Ed.

Venus, Earth and Mars

Venus, Earth and Mars

Imagine You are a Space Traveler…

Sometimes it can be helpful when framing an issue to get some perspective. When it comes to classifying the values that the vital functions that Earth’s ecosystems provide us, this perspective can be gained by zooming way way waaay out from the bird’s eye view of life on Earth to that of a space traveler who can not only see Earth, but other planets too. This interplanetary perspective falls into the academic domain of astrobiology.

As commented on by Schlesinger in the introductory quote, Earth stands in marked contrast to its sister planets, Mars and Venus. The latter two planets are both inhospitable to life as we know it, but in different ways. Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect and is too hot, and Mars has a runaway refrigerator effect and is too cold. (This is a ripe setting for an interplanetary Goldilocks tale don’t you think?)

The Critical Function of Regulating Ecosystem Services

Photosynthesis and Respiration

Photosynthesis and Respiration

One of the key factors that makes life on Earth possible is life itself. It does this by maintaining a  system of chemical metabolic  pathways. (If you want to blow your mind with the complexity of these biological pathways, download the chart from this Sigma site.) The largest source of energy driving these pathways is the sun, which provides us with an endless stream of solar radiation. The most well know, and arguably most important biological chemical processes, are respiration and photosynthesis, which–as we all learn in grade school–are essential to the functions of regulating oxygen (O2)and carbon dioxide (CO2). Life also helps to regulate other important biogeochemical pathways as well such as nitrogen, sulphur, water and phosphorus.

The simplified diagram below breaks down the central role that biota on Earth play in regulating Earth’s chemistry in such a way that it maintains relative homeostasis (similar to how our own bodies maintain our blood chemistry) over time, compared to Venus and Mars. The figure highlights the important role of CO2 in the atmosphere as well.

Venus-Earth-Mars Comparison, Nick Strobel

Venus-Earth-Mars Comparison (Image from Nick Strobel's Astronomy Notes.)

Plants and other organisms that photosynthesize create the matter (biomass) which forms the base of the food chain on Earth. Over time green plants/organisms sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into their living tissues, and this is called net primary production (NPP). This photosynthetic process, along with respiration, in turn, also helps in regulating  oxygen and carbon dioxide cycles which are critical to life on Earth as we know it. Hence, the amount of food available on Earth, as well as the composition of the atmosphere is significantly regulated by the balancing act of the actions of photosynthetic organisms (autotrophs) and respiring ones (heterotrophs). Maintaining biodiversity is also important to maintaining this balance.

Humans control about 40% of the Earth’s terrestrial primary production.

How much these life processes help protect the Earth from turning into a dead planet like Mars or Venus is debatable, but what we DO know is that humans on Earth control about 40% of the total terrestrial net primary production from plants, as well as about 8% from the oceans. 40%!! This is an astounding number! And, these numbers were calculated based on data from a couple of decades ago, so the actual numbers are likely higher today.

What this means is that humans are significantly commandeering and influencing some of the vital life processes on Earth of net primary production and influencing their related chemical pathways. In some ways, we really are space travelers, and Earth is our spaceship. As our population rises on this vessel of ours, we are likely to push these numbers higher and higher over the next couple of decades.

warning lightThis brings up some key questions relating to how we are impacting the regulatory functioning of Earth’s natural systems:

  • If we think of putting a virtual green light, yellow light and red light warning system for risk to spaceship Earth’s critical life regulatory functioning, what level of human impact is acceptable (within the green range), risky (within the yellow range) and dire red alert?
  • How can we reduce the human impact on ecosystem regulatory functions that impact life support on Earth to levels that in the safe green zone?
  • Considering that we have already failed in our attempts to secure biodiversity, such as achieving the Convention on Biological Diversity 2010 targets, how will we achieve the next set of targets effectively in the face of concurrent growing human needs?

Ground Control to Major Tom, what do you think of that?

The Giving Trees: Part 3, Forest Services

This post follows Part 1 and Part 2. It is in participation of the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th. This blog post is the last in a three part series to form the background information to my final official post tomorrow.

This series of background posts on nature’s forest services covers the following topics:

  1. A bit of background on where forests come from,
  2. How forests are being degraded and lost,
  3. Valuable forest services, and
  4. How our valuing these ecosystem services can help to protect them.

Part 1 of this series of posts covered Point 1 above, discussing a bit about how forests themselves came to be, and how life as we know it would not be the same if life had taken a different twist and turn and trees had never been. Part 2, The Vanishing Forests, covered an overview the threats and extent of deforestation around the world. Finally, this post will cover forest ecosystem services, and how they can help to protect our world’s remaining forests.

In my enthusiasm for a good excuse to blog and wax poetic about forest ecosystem services, I missed the word limit in the rules for the World Environment Day contest! Hence, officially, this series of posts is to just provide background information (for those who want to know more) for my final official pithy post entry which will follow tomorrow.

Forest Ecosystem Services

Morning forestMost of us live in cities, and do not have the privilege of spending much time in nature. As such, it is easy to become disconnected from the natural world which surrounds and supports us. Nevertheless, we are dependent on nature for our very survival. The very oxygen that we breathe accumulated in the atmosphere due to the action of photosynthesizing life forms. Forests play a key role in helping to locally and globally balance oxygen levels, as well as filter polluting impurities out of the air.

Forests and other wild ecosystems are also the foundation for life on Earth. They are the original source of biodiversity, all the food we have, all the animals, and the biogeochemical cycles that they help regulate. The combination of all the ecosystems in the world makes up the global biosphere, that we are a part of. At the same time, there are so many of us (as pointed out in Part 2) that our actions are starting to have significant impacts on ecosystems, as well as their net structure and function. Climate change is an example of how our cumulative actions of emitting greenhouse gases has led to anthropoenic climate change, which means that we have overwhelmed the capacity of natural systems to buffer CO2 out of the atmosphere.

So, ecosystems are bigger than us, and many aspects of ecosystems are also priceless. Yet, we have left out ecosystem goods and services of ecosystems out of our national GDP accounts and economic systems, and this has led to the externalization of forest goods and services from our balance sheets, policy and planning, and the eventual degradation and loss of forests and other ecosystems around the world. In order to help stop this externalization of forest ecosystem services, what we can do is provide a price to them. In this way, we can better meausre, manage and protect the health of our forests, economies and the people who depend upon them.

So, what kinds of ecosystem services do forests give to us? Using the TEEB definition of Ecosystem Services, here is a quick run down of nature’s forest services to us:

1. Provisioning

Blue forestWhen we think of forests providing for us, usually the thought that comes to mind is wood to build, furnish and warm our homes. Yet, forests provide so much more.  30% of forests globally are used for providing both wood and non-wood products. These products are conventionally part of what is called natural resources. These resources provide us with things we need, and help to drive our national economies, and yet forest natural capital is, as mentioned, often externalized from our national accounts.

In order to provide a better reckoning of forests, so we can better manage our impacts on them, what kinds of goods and services do forests provide us?

  • Softwood and hardwood lumber
  • Wood fibre and pulp products (like paper)
  • Fruits from fruit trees (bananas, apples, pears, mangoes)
  • Mushrooms (some mushrooms are still wild harvested and require very specific conditions to grow)
  • Wild harvested plants
  • Biomass for biofuel
  • Biochemicals, medicines and pharmaceuticals
  • Genetic resources
  • Fresh water purification is provided by forested watersheds
  • Animals that live within forest ecosystems are also a food source (fish and game)

2. Regulating

Forests are also like biological machines that impact and regulate the chemicals and environments around them through their metabolic pathways. Just like a car has an engine and produces CO2, the plants and trees of the forest have metabolisms that not only respire (producing CO2 and using up O2 like us), but photosynthesize. Photosynthesis is part of the magic of life on Earth, which pulls CO2 out of the air, and fixes it in plant tissues, while releasing O2 at the same time. This also makes forests perfected systems for carbon capture and storage. What other regulating functions do forests provide?

  • Fresh water purification is provided by forested watersheds
  • Clean air is provided by trees which help to filter out impurities and pollution
  • As mentioned, oxygen is provided by trees (in cities like Tokyo, oxygen levels can go way down locally, and planting more trees can be a way to help them back up again)
  • Regulating critical to life biogeochemical cycles such as the nitrogen cycle, water cycle, carbon cycle, and oxygen cycle
  • Wind breaks
  • Temperature regulation (from technical matters such as affecting the Earth’s albedo to providing some comforting shade out of the sun, forests have many effects on micro to local to regional climate)
  • Soil erosion prevention and control
  • Storm water control (to prevent excess flooding)
  • Oceanic storm surge protection (such as from mangroves pictured above) is critical along coasts, and can also help buffer against climate change induced sea level rise

3. Habitat

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” – Charles Darwin

White Stag

White Stag, Rob Ward Photo

Forests provide two basic kinds of habitat related to ecosystem services:  habitat for species and habitat to serve as gene-pool ‘protectors’.  Regarding the first, species live in what we normally think of as habitat, which is basically a space where an organism can live. This habitat can be as large as the vast range of a grizzly bear, the breeding ground of a migratory bird, to a tangled river bank reminiscent of Darwin’s quote above, to a single tree for an insect. Regarding habitat for gene-pool protectors, this refers to the necessity to maintain natural habitat to allow natural selection to take place as it has been since the dawn of life. This process of natural selection is the basis for the diversity of life on Earth, and it is critical to maintain it as best as we can for the genetic health and well being of all species on Earth.

Without maintaining forest habitats at the right size for the creatures that live within them, and providing a means to protect that habitat, both the habitat and the plants and animals within can be lost. Illegal logging and poaching is a pernicious problem that plagues countries all over the world, not only developing nations. For instance, the white stag pictured above was poached from a park in the UK to the chagrin of many.

In order to maintain the habitat of many organisms–as well as genetic diversity that those habitats allow and facilitate–it is important that we preserve the health and integrity of the various ecosystems that make up the many biomes of the world. There are breaking points at which, for example, deforestation leads to enough habitat fragmentation where the health of that ecosystem, its ability to maintain itself, becomes compromised. Hence, protecting large tracts of ecosystems is often important to consider.

The forests are also home to over 300 million people. While these forests may not be pristine, they are still important as intermediary forest habitat, which also support numerous other species. The forest homes of many people around the world are also threatened by fragmentation and deforestation. In particular, indigenous peoples who depend on the forest for their home and livelihood often do not have land rights to the land they occupy and have been expropriated and exiled from their original homes. A striking example of this are the Guaraní peoples of Brazil in Mato Grosso do Sul state. These forest people have been, often violently, turned off their land, and a few tribes now are relegated to living at the sides of roads.

For better news, the Dongria Khond, called the real life Na’vi of Avatar, in India recently won their battle to prevent a bauxite mine on their sacred mountain that contained the forest and agricultural land that they depend on.  Nevertheless, Vendanta Resources, the British company with interests in the bauxite doesn’t seem to have dropped the issue and it looks like they will go back to court to fight it out some more. It is sad to think that it is most likely the party with the most resources and legal assistance in the long run who will win in the war of attrition that the fight for resources can become. And this is why, in part, we need to properly measure and value these forest resources, to give people like the Dongria Khond, a better way to plea their case, and local governments more leverage in effecting protective policies.

One of the challenges of setting aside habitat to preserve wild ecosystems is climate change itself. Human induced climate change has already started to affect temperature and precipitation patterns around the world, and it is precisely these factors that determine what the underlying tree and plant assemblage of an area is, along with sunlight. Due to climate change, forests literally walk the Earth, as their zones move, shrink or expand as their species gradually die of in newly inhospitable conditions, or grow into newly hospitable ones. For an excellent example of how forests move due to climate change, this US Forest Service Atlas database is a great resource. Try clicking for example on the Sugar Maple (Summary All-5) on the Atlas link and see how most predictions indicate that this tree species will move completely north out of the United States due to climate change.

4. Cultural

Buddhists meditating in the forest

Last, but certainly not least, forests provide important cultural services. Cultural ecosystem services include the spiritual, educational, recreational, traditional and aesthetic benefits that forests provide. For instance, the meditation retreat pictured in the image above would not be the same without the forest setting. Other examples of cultural services forests provide are settings for hiking, orienteering, camping, nature retreats, sweat lodges and other First Nations spiritual activities, and scenes for inspiration for art and relaxation.

Often, cultural forest ecosystem services are given cursory attention in the literature compared to the other kinds of services, but nature can exert very strong direct and indirect impacts on human culture and well being.  For instance, many wars can be traced back to the pre-emptive actions of one group to secure access to resources that are perceived to be in more and more limited supply. This has been attributed to the Rwandan genocide, “in which much conflict arose over the struggle to control productive land, and hence to capture and retain the security that access to the ecosystem services that productive land affords.” (Butler and Oluoch-Kosura. 2006)

A sense of cultural heritage and place is also strongly associated with the ecosystems that one grows up in. These systems can be deeply ingrained within the cultures around the world and literature and anthropology is replete with examples. For instance, the mores, traditions, beliefs, legends and stories of desert cultures are different than those of fishing villages, which are also different from those cultures traditionally from tropical jungles. In his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv discusses how the loss of natural systems, including forests, is having an effect on our own modern culture in the form of ‘nature deficit disorder’. In addition, the manner in which modern city dwellers are out of touch with nature, places nature lower on their priority list–out of sight, out of mind so to speak. Cultural methods of putting people, and their children back in touch with nature, is hence important to help people be more aware, and for their own health. This is a new area of expanded study now, with many parent and other groups sprouting up to encourage parents to literally get their children out in the woods and wilds.

Animals Have Culture Tied to Forests Too!

Orangatun Using Spear

Orangatun Using Spear

I have not yet heard of animal social learning/cultural health and evolution being mentioned with reference to ecosystem services, but I feel that this is also an important area to consider. From rats, to parrots, elephants and monkeys, many animals are ‘social’ learners. This means that the animals are not just born with instincts that make them automatically act. Rather, they also learn how to behave in their environments based upon what they learn from their parents and peers. This means, that, to a certain extent, animals too have culture, and this culture has evolved in the context of and in connection with the natural ecosystems that they inhabit. Hence, it is important to preserve habitats as environments for animals to preserve their cultural heritage, as well as for us!

This means that if you take a baby tiger out of its forest habitat, and put it in a zoo to “save” it, or genetically preserve it, it might grow up to be physically healthy, but it will not be mentally or culturally healthy in that it would not be able to reintegrate into a natural habitat and succeed the same way that a wild tiger would. (Imagine a human child placed into an alien zoo similarly, and how ill equipped they would be to reintegrate to human society.) In degrading and losing the wild forests of the Earth, we are also, depriving animals of their ability to learn and evolve with those habitats, compromising their survival, in yet another way. How is animal culture and social learning an ecosystem service? I would argue that it is in a similar way to maintaining genetic diversity. In addition, learning more about animal learning and culture helps us to understand ourselves better. Finally, who knows what benefits may come from learning more from and better connecting with other sentient beings besides ourselves?

It is important to consider this evolutionary culture context in light of what future losses we may be instigating through our systematic deforestation of the world’s forests. What future amazing creatures might have evolved in the now already vanished forests of the world? How are we limiting the capacity of existing organisms to evolve in the forests we have left? We’ve spent much time and money looking for signs of intelligent life in outer space. Perhaps it’s time we more carefully considered fostering the conditions to further advance it here on Earth.

Protecting Forest Ecosystem Services

Sunrise on Swiss ForestTo recap, in this series of blog posts, Part 1 covered where forests come from, and why they are important. Part 2 covered how our global forests are being depleted and vanishing. Today, in Part 3, I have given an overview of forest ecosystem services. But, how can defining, measuring and valuing these ecosystem services help to protect them for us, as well as for future generations?

There are two main ways in which we can value nature. One is in terms of a deterrent system to penalize those who deplete the natural capital which provides valuable ecosystem services. For instance, these would involve penalties such as higher fees, or damage payments for industries which cause deforestation, or who cause pollution which damages forest ecosystem services. The other kind is an incentive system, such as Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), which offer new incentives to land owners to use their forests in more sustainable ways. The most known example of PES programs are new carbon markets that reward land owners who do actions on their land that enable it to better sequester carbon. By replanting or protecting forested lands, land owners can obtain money through the sale of carbon offsets, enabling them to find a way to profit off their land through actions other than resource extraction. REDD+ is one of the best examples of such a system, which also enables poor local communities to find ways to reduce poverty, as well as other social and environmental co-benefits. Currently, with the inability of nations to come to international agreements on carbon regulations and targets through COP (we will see if they will do any better at Durban this year), the Verified (previously “Voluntary”) Carbon Standard has risen in quality and robustness such that forest carbon projects under its AFOLU standards are setting the bar for forest projects for other standards world wide.

Some may feel, as I once did, that placing a monetary value on nature has certain issues, such as people using things like carbon markets as perverse incentives to plant things like ‘carbon forests’ which might actually be ecologically damaging, but as discussed in my post, Why Put a Price on Nature?, systems such as REDD+ have come a long way, and it appears that the benefits of valuing nature at this time outweigh the potential risks.

Can Our Protective Efforts be Successful? Yes!

Tree planting in India

Tree Planting in India

Around the world the combination of deterrents and incentives is starting to bear fruit in slowing forest loss in some areas. One of the best examples comes from Costa Rica, where in the last 20 years about a quarter of the country has been reforested or preserved as a result of forestry reform. In addition, last year the FAO reported that globally forest loss rates, for the first time in decades slowed down, and this was in part due to regulatory reform and PES resulting in less deforestation, and more tree planting programs in China and South America.

Finally, it should be mentioned that neither of the two methods mentioned will be as effective as they could be in the absence of robust standards based on science, transparency and  clear land rights. For instance, if indigenous peoples in developing nations are not given rights to their land, they cannot benefit from PES programs properly.

In this way, when we value nature, and work to protect it, we are in essence growing up as a culture, become more aware of what supports it, and in turn, supporting it back. Like children growing up to look after their parents, we can look at the giving trees, and in turn give back to them. Frankly, this is a plot twist that I would like to see some day soon.

Giving Back to Trees

Giving Back to Trees

The Giving Trees: Part 1

This blog post is in participation of the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th. Following this post are Part 2 and Part 3.

"Emily Carr Forest" by Taralee Guild


“I sat staring, staring, staring – half lost, learning a new language or rather the same language in a different dialect. So still were the big woods where I sat, sound might not yet have been born.
Emily Carr

The woods themselves are silent in their giving. They don’t announce, advertise or charge for all that they do and all the beneficial services they provide to us.  It takes observers–artists, scientists, anyone with an eye to see really–to relay their stories to us. Even then, as people are so caught up with the business of their own lives, they often don’t have time to listen. In this, the International Year of Forests, with World Environment Day just around the corner on June 5th, perhaps it is time to sit back for a minute, take a break and consider, what do our forests have to tell us at this time? In honour of our forests, this is the first is a series of blog posts that will touch base on:

  1. A bit of background on where forests come from,
  2. How forests are being degraded and lost,
  3. Valuable forest services, and
  4. How our valuing these ecosystem services can help to protect them.

Where do forests come from?

Teman Negara National Park, Gerald S. Cubitt photo WWF

They say that if you walk in someone else’s shoes that you can understand better where they are coming from. What about forests? Where did they come from? They seem like they have been here forever, and in human terms, this is the case as they evolved long before we did. However, forests are also relatively fragile, depending on the balance of sun, rain and soil to survive and thrive. When these factors change significantly, forests can recede and vanish.

For example, as the Earth has gone through various glacial cycles over the last few hundred million years, forests that have grown up in the more northern regions have been razed by glaciers, leaving tropical rainforests as the oldest forests in the world. These rainforests, being so old, have had the most time to evolve many kinds of plants and animals, and that is why they are hotspots of biodiversity.

The most ancient of all known rainforests is the about 130,000 year old Teman Negara Forest in Malaysia. Home to the endangered Malayan tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian Elephant, Malayan Peacock-pheasant, amongst many other animals, this park exemplifies the amazing diversity and web of life that has evolved around forests. Forests that are now threatened by deforestation.

The Evolution of Trees



The trees that make up forests evolved between about 299-385 million years ago as shown in the image above. Remains of the world’s oldest rainforest have been found in Illinois in the United States. This rainforest existed about 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous, when most of the world’s fossil fuel deposits were put down.

“It is interesting to think about what would have happened if trees had not evolved…”

Endangered Resplendent Quetzal

It is interesting to think about what would have happened if trees had not evolved.

For starters, we likely wouldn’t have the coal and oil deposits that we are so dependent upon now for most of the world’s energy needs. We also know that some species of animals co-evolved with tree species–developing fascinating and symbiotic relationships–such as acacias and ants, fruit trees and bats. What about other creatures?  Many birds and insects are literally dependent on trees for their survival, such as the endangered Resplendent Quetzal, pictured at right. They live in the trees, eat parts of the trees, and hide in the trees to escape predation.

How about mammals, who diversified shortly after the spread of forests on Earth? Without trees we would not have squirrels, racoons, lemurs, bush babies, sloths, certain species of great cats like pumas and tigers, many deer species, gorillas, koalas, giraffes (that long neck, designed to reach the leaves in tall trees), and many other forest dwelling mammals.

Tarsiers, Philppines. Per-Andre Hoffman photo.

And, finally, how about us?  With our own tree dwelling primate ancestors, there is a good chance we would not even be here today if it were not for those giving trees.

Just ask the tarsiers, pictured at left. Having originated about 45 million years ago, and only still surviving in the forests of South East Asia, these living fossils are perhaps our oldest living primate ancestors. For whatever reason, they seem to have been happy to not evolve much from their ancestral form, maintaining many of the good ol’ ways, including their still very obvious attachment to trees.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series of blog posts tomorrow…

Is there an ideal approach to multiple ecosystem services?

Ecosystem services are based in time and, mostly, space. As such, they can be mapped.  Developing these maps in a scientifically reliable way is part of the key to developing ways to measure, baseline and monitor ES in a way that can ultimately lead to better informed policy and decision making to sustain our global systems, as well as the ES they provide.

I came across some news today that Martin Prince, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is advocating that  “mountain specific planning is needed to ensure the flow of ecosystem services.” Mountain specific planning… Hmm. This got me thinking:

Is there an ideal method of looking at ecosystem services in an integrated way that would make sense for multiple ecosystem services attributes?

As such, could we group water, soil, biodiversity, timber, medicinal, cultural etc ecosystem services together in a way that would be useful for each? Would we be best to go large and group by biome? Group by mountain? Group by watershed? Group by underlying soil type? These are examples of some of the approaches we could take, and any would likely be allow us to have a way to break down ecosystems and manage our actions on them appropriately and sustainably.

As far as individual ecosystem services attributes I’ve seen different maps of various ES parameters, such as:

Soil

Harmonized World Soil Index

Harmonized World Soil Database


Soil Carbon

Global Soil Organic Carbon


Fresh Water

Global Freshwater Habitat

Global Freshwater Habitat Types


Biodiversity

Global Biodiversity

Global Biodiversity


A Combined ES Approach

As you can see from the above maps, they look great and allow us to get a global snapshot of various ecosystem parameters that underlie natural capital and flows of ecosystem services. There are also more localized regional maps that can be found, but if the maps are produced by different groups, it can start to become rather unwieldy to try and overlay them and get an idea of what land might be priority for protecting ecosystem services.

So what about a combined approach to more than one ES parameter at a time? In many cases, these parameters will be quite location specific such as this map below that shows carbon and a specific species, caribou. The Canadian Boreal Initiative and the Boreal Songbird Initiative have produced this work that looks at both carbon and caribou habitat in order to help determine areas of the boreal forest in Canada that may be priority for conservation. The map below shows carbon in brown, and the woodland caribou and barren ground caribou ranges are shown with different green patterns.

Carbon and Caribou in the Canadian Boreal

Carbon and Caribou in the Canadian Boreal (Songbird Initiative Map)


Another study by UNEP, WCMC, the German Federation for Nature Conservation and other partners has produced an Interactive Tool that combines both carbon and biodiversity in general. Their map below indicates areas of the globe where they have completed studies, or have studies in development.

Exploring regional carbon, biodiversity and ecosystem services co-benefits


On the above map, you can see a purple area in China. That is Jiangxi Province, and here is a link to that project where they have mad a map for that region focusing on carbon and vascular plants. If you click on the previous link at the top of this paragraph you can find the link to the actual pdf map on that page, but I’ve pasted a smaller copy below for convenience. As can be seen on the map of Jiangxi, when you overlay carbon and biodiversity layers on the map, you can start to see if there are certain areas within regions that are hotspots for multiple ecosystem services that should be a priority for protection. The dark brown areas represent areas of high carbon, but the dark green areas contain both high carbon and high biodiverisity.

Jiangxi Province Carbon and Biodiversity

Jiangxi Province Carbon and Biodiversity

This is where this approach can start to become a useful tool for local to international policy and decision makers who are facing significant challenges, such as not meeting the targets for the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010. When you overlay multiple ecosystem services attributes, and find a way to rank important or threatened ones, then you can start to form a clear picture of where you need to concentrate your resources and action for protection.

Another interesting and potentially useful approach I have seen is in some great work I’ve recently seen mapping ecosystem services by watershed. I will be following up with a blog post soon with examples of recent research on mapping ecosystem services using this watershed approach as I feel it deserves a separate treatment. Stay tuned…

Ecological Economics

What


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.

Why

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.

Who

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:

Where

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…”