Saturday, December 17, 2011


Ask not what your planet does for you …
A shorter version of this article was published in Conservation Magazine

Kai M. A. Chan

I recently spent twelve weeks on paternity leave, enjoying the many benefits that my baby provides me—free of charge. I call them ‘baby services’.

That’s one way to explain my parental leave to people who otherwise don’t get it, but to most people it’s jarringly absurd. Yet—as I realized one sleepless night—it parallels the way that I and many others have been explaining our ecology and conservation work through ‘ecosystem services’. Just as ‘baby services’ overemphasizes the me-first benefits of children, an extreme ‘ecosystem services’ narrative overemphasizes the passive reception of benefits and extends the sphere of appropriateness for economic analogies of factory production, potentially undermining stewardship tendencies.

Furthermore, the term ‘ecosystem services’ is dead in the water as a tool for public communication. Polling clearly reveals such a widespread discomfort with ‘ecosystem services’ that The Nature Conservancy—one of the world’s biggest conservation NGOs—has revamped its communication to steer away from this term. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking issue with the ecological research enterprise focusing on ecosystem services: I’m a whole-hearted believer that we will foster improved decision-making through a better understanding of how ecosystem structures and processes relate to the things that we want and need. What I’m talking about here is how we verbalize these patterns of thought—and the overarching or undercutting way we present them to society, through the stories we tell.

What I’m railing against here isn’t the benefits part of ecosystem services (which is key), and it’s only partly the over-extension of economic production analogies. Mainly it’s the (unintended) association with a passive and expectant reception of benefits that reinforces the ‘me-first’ attitude and risks signaling acceptance of the notion that ecosystems are or ought to be organized first and foremost for those benefits. It’s a pattern of thought that is clearly reflected in the Economist’s 2005 irksome but memorable cover text and graphics for ecosystem services, “Are you being served?”

There’s a great logic to the notion of ecosystem services. We absolutely need to connect what we do to conserve ecosystems to the things that matter to people—clean water, productive soil, stable climate, and a host of less-quantifiable services. And dollar valuation can play an important role, sometimes. But since when did people only care about their passive reception of benefits? Behavioural psychology, cognitive science, and anthropology have demonstrated convincingly that economic assumptions characterizing people as rational utility-maximizers are inaccurate simplifications, albeit occasionally convenient ones. People care about caring—for people, homes, and landscapes—even when that caring comes with considerable cost and sacrifice. Parenthood made this easier for me to understand. About having a baby, fellow parents didn’t tell me, “You’ll love all the great things she’ll do for you!” They told me, “It’ll change your life forever, but it’s magical. I never knew I could love anything so deeply and completely.”

Of course I’m not going to promise anyone this kind of love of ecosystems, but I will promise fulfillment and a sense of belonging to anyone who strives to build a relationship with nature. People can be receptive to messages that don’t lead with a promise of benefits, but generally this requires a relationship—like the kinship relationship of many native peoples with nature. We can bring out caring tendencies in ourselves and in others if we do more to facilitate a sense of connection to nature. The literature on ecological restoration suggests strongly that getting people outside and actively participating in ecosystem care—especially with others—can help build the kind of ‘ecological citizenship’ that I think we seek (Light 2006). We can then link the caring of local ecosystems to (particular) more distant ecosystems, just as aid organizations so effectively hook people with pictures and stories of (particular) distant children, and from there we can build support for particular actions that benefit nature diffusely. Care begets care: I know how much more receptive I am to those messages now that I have two daughters. Social psychologists confirm this rule, having shown that engaging people’s self-interest serves to suppress their concern for others. So let’s encourage ecosystem-care for the fulfillment it provides through relationships, and also because it is crucial for humanity.

As an organizing principle for conservation and ecology, I’m now deeply suspicious of us-first ecosystem services and a firm believer in stewardship + life support systems. That’s not because my scientific understanding has changed, but rather because I find myself wanting to communicate with and partner with a broader cross-section of humanity. If we concentrate on the ways that ecosystems happen to fulfill our current preferences—labile and unpredictable as they are—we will miss the many opportunities that present themselves for us to grow into our roles as stewards, for us to fulfill ourselves not only through benefit-reception but through care.

Light, A. 2006. Ecological Citizenship: The Democratic Promise of Restoration. Pages 169-182 in R. H. Platt, editor. The Humane Metropolis: People and Nature in the 21st-Century City. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA.