To the Giving Trees: “Thank-you.”

This blog post is my entry for the “Nature’s Forest Services” blog competition being hosted by UNEP and TreeHugger in honour of World Environment Day on June 5th. The post goes along with Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, that provide some extra background material for those interested in learning more about forest ecosystem services.  

Cariboo Lake, British Columbia

“We are living on an incredibly beautiful little planet, but our human existence is threatened. If we are to survive we have to learn to think differently. The thinking for the future has to be loyal to nature. It must encompass all humans and all living creatures, because everything alive, in itself, has a value.”

Arne Naess

A Peculiar Dichotomy

What can I say? I’m a sucker for trees. You don’t have to convince me of forest services. I’m already there.

How did this happen? I don’t look like a forest nut. Many of my schoolmates grew up to love money and fancy cars more than trees. My parents were the opposite of hippies.  I can be as much of a workaholic, gadget loving, inside person as the next typical city dweller.

So what’s my story? Why did I choose to study environmental science in university? Why have I devoted my career to ecosystem services? Why am I the kind of zealot who would voluntarily write a lengthy three part backgrounder to preface this simple blog contest entry?

The answer lies in the fundamental power of forest ecosystem services to transform a person. I should know. They transformed me.

My Forest Story

“And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

– Dylan Thomas, Fernhill


Grizzly
When I was nine, my parents up and moved to the wilds of British Columbia on the shores of Cariboo Lake. Did I want to go? Nuh un! I wanted to stay in Vancouver with my friends. I didn’t want to go live in the middle of nowhere. What would I do all day? No TV, phone, power. No neighbours. But there were grizzlies. It sounded scary!

But like most things we fear, it wasn’t so bad when we arrived, but yes, boring. I first read all the decent books in the house, then did the puzzles. I dressed my cat in doll clothes until he lost patience and started scratching me. Finally, I got up the nerve to face my grizzly fears, and started hanging around outside.

I spent my time between the daisies in our yard to the trees around it.  I would lie for hours on the soft mossy rocks by the stream behind our house, our source of water. There I learned the music of wind through the trees, punctuated by the melody of birds. So many birds.

Eventually, I had encounters with the other forest inhabitants. Porcupines, moose, black bears, deer. Once, I found a baby bat with a broken wing and nursed it back to health. Another time I was chased by a wounded moose. I used to pretend my dog, Duke, was a wolf who would keep away the grizzlies. And maybe he was–I never encountered one.

After a while, in this way, I forgot about notions of boredom. I never felt alone. I learned a kind of contentment that I had not known before. As this happened, the woods became a part of me, like dear, old friends. Time stretched out, and the ancient forest claimed me as one of its own.

Then it happened. Barely a year in and my parents said we had to move back to Vancouver. I was devastated. In a hollow, wordless way. Leaving the Cariboo left a gap in my heart, that is only filled when I feel I am doing some justice to what I learned in those woods.

And so I can vouch for the profound value of forest cultural ecosystem services, for I’ve felt their direct benefit, and also their loss. Hence, I am who I am, do the work that I do, and finally, write this blog. It’s my small way to say, “Thank-you,” to the giving trees.



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HRH Prince Charles on ES, climate change and resilience

This video is a good one for a tea break call to action.

Tea Time Talk

Prince Charles covers a lot of ground in the video below including Ecosystem Services, GDP linkages to externalities not being accounted for, forests, fisheries and aquaculture, perverse subsidies, kudos on reporting to certain groups, the history of TEEB, public private partnerships with NGO input, not leaving things to the market alone, the market-mechanism potentials that may be effective in incentivizing sustainable ends, and the role of the consumer in demanding sustainable products and services.

His final comments are the most persuasive:

“Lately I’ve been asking myself on why the public has not eagerly embraced many of the advantages in pursuing a sustainable future. My conclusion is that for too long environmentalists have concentrated on the things that we need to stop doing. If we are constantly told that means giving up all that makes life worthwhile, then it is no surprise that people refuse to change.

That is why last year I launched a new initiative called ‘Start‘ which aims to show people what they could start doing. The simple steps that we can all take to make better use of our natural resources…We are unashamedly trying to sell the benefits of sustainability…We are making it cool to use less stuff. Believe it or not, this smarter approach can actually be more profitable. As Marks and Spencer have found an innovative approach to sustainbility actually saves money.

Now I have to say this process has not exactly been helped by the corrosive effect on public opinion of those climate change skeptics who deny the vast body of scientific evidence that shows beyond any reasonable doubt that global warming has been exacerbated by human industrialized activity. Their suggestion that hundreds of scientists around the world, and those who accept their dispassionate evidence, including presumably (ladies and gentlement) myself, who rather ironically am constantly accused of being anti-science, who are somehow unconsciously biased creates the implication that many of us are somehow secretly conspiring to undermine and deliberately destroy the entire market-based capitalistic system that now dominates the world.

So I would ask, how these people are going to face their grandchildren and admit to them that they actually failed their future? That they ignored all the clear warning signs by passing them off as merely part of a cyclical process that had happened many times before and was beyond our control. That they had refused to heed the desperate cries of those last remaining traditional societies throughout the world who warned consistently of catastrophe because they could read the signs of impending disintegration in the ever more violent extreme aberrations in the normally harmonious process of nature.

So I wonder, will such people be held accountable at the end of the day for the absolute refusal to countenance a precautionary approach? For this plays, I would suggest, a most reckless game of roulette with a future inheritance of those who come after us. An inheritance, ladies and gentlemen, that will be shaped by what you decide to do here in this parliament.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. President, you’ve been remarkably patient at listening to me, and I promise you that what you decide here could induce the very necessary adjustments we so urgently we need to make. So can I ask if you will be courageous enough to seize the moment, set Europe on a course for survival and economic prosperity, and so earn the endless gratitude of our descendants.”

John Muir: Inner and Outer Connectivity

The outside within

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

~John Muir,  in John of the Mountains:  The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1938

What Does Your Ideal World Look Like?

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





Vision

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

Moscow

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)