Gardenification of nature versus maintaining ecosystem services: same thing?

By Joern Fischer

More than a decade ago, Daniel Janzen advocated the ‘gardenification of nature‘ in an essay in Science. Janzen argues that our genes predispose us to looking after our reproduction and finding shelter and food. He reasons that the goal of conserving ‘wildlands’ is problematic because such land doesn’t serve any purpose for us with respect to these three fundamental needs — hence, we are likely to destroy such land. The solution then, according to Janzen is to stop thinking of wildlands as wild, and instead, treat nature like a garden — which we derive benefits from (such as food), and which therefore, we need to look after. This does seem to work in some cases. For example, Kristoffer Hylander found that coffee gardens in Ethiopia (directly next to people’s houses) support a variety of plants and mosses, and also birds.

At first glance, the idea of the gardenification of nature sounds very similar to an appeal to value the world’s ecosystem services. Especially the idea of provisioning services is very similar to the idea of a ‘garden’. Indeed, the ‘techno garden‘ scenario in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment even uses the word garden. So if anything, it appears, the concept of ecosystem services is broader than the notion of the gardenification of nature.

But in one subtle way, Janzen’s essay goes beyond much of what current literature on ecosystem services does — or at least to me, it feels between the lines, like Janzen’s work goes further. And that is that he very explicitly recognises the underlying values and drivers of why people may or may not maintain nature. He basically argues against a separation of humans and nature; and he argues for understanding what we value and why. Much current literature on ecosystem services takes this stuff as given. It is often taken as given that ‘market values’ would solve the problems of ecosystem abuse — since such abuse is mainly seen as ‘market failure’. If only ecosystem services had a proper value, we would look after them. So utilitarianism is taken as given in ecosystem services, but made explicit in Janzen’s essay.

So what? First, it seems important to me to be explicit about the underlying framework of how we value the world. Utilitarianism seems to describe many of the present trends somewhat well. But second, it also seems important to me to recognise that this is not the only way to think about the ethics of how humans do or ought to behave towards the natural environment. What I’d like to see more of in the literature then is (1) a more explicit acknowledgement of the value framework underpinning a given paper, and (2) a more common acknowledgement that being human can be more than just meeting one’s needs for food, shelter and a mate. Given our capacity for reflection and conscious action, is it reasonable to assume the only way we will be able to solve conservation problems is to appeal to our basic instincts?

Maybe. Maybe not.


6 thoughts on “Gardenification of nature versus maintaining ecosystem services: same thing?

  1. Hm… of course, our “basic” instincts aren’t necessarily “base” instincts. Bowles and Gintis have long complicated the traditional (and rather Herbert Spencer/Social Darwinist derived) assumptions of self-maximization, competition, and individual reproductive benefits. See, for example , and

    I’d argue Bowles, Gintis, and Ostrom, among others, have long since established that a lack of good management is not so simple as what our genes predispose us towards — or more precisely, that what we are disposed towards (pre- or post- genetically, so to speak) is far more flexible than Janzen implies. It is prefigured by biology, I’d argue, but prefigured by the far more contingent, and interesting, view of humans involved in the work of those scholars and others. (Although Janzen’s point could still fit within the governance analyses, given that governance by definition implies some form of “management”, such as one would find of a “garden”. Nonetheless, I find the implicit idea of control to be problematic–see the work of my good friend Dean Bavington, ; see also “The Genesis, History, and Limits of Carrying Capacity”, 2008, in Annals of the AAG, by Nathan Sayre.)

    I’m not familiar with Janzen’s argument in full, but it reminds me somewhat of the “re-wilding” ideas. From my point of view, these conceptualizations represent an unfamiliarity with the actual (current/cutting-edge) research on human behavior, which indicates a number of reasons for lack of (effective) conservation and sustainability action, including socioecological systems without adequate feedback, lacking adequate punishment of transgressors, and large-scale and pervasive incentives for “perverse” behavior. (One of the more innocuous, but interesting, examples is that telling college undergraduates that humans are naturally selfish makes them behave more selfishly in a following experimental game; telling them that humans naturally cooperate makes them, on average, behave more altruistically.)

    Given the plasticity of human behavior, coupled with the fact that our institutions are (largely) in fact designed to encourage exploitation over sustainability, and the tragedy becomes not something deep in human nature, but rather, the pressures exerted from a variety of forces to influence us to act less “conscientiously”, even though such conscientiousness could be said to be as much part of our character as self-regard, and searching for shelter and food.

    To be melodramatic, it is Shakespearean in its tragedy–a character flaw bringing down an otherwise reasonable or good person. But the flaw is not self-regard–it seems to me, the character flaw providing a possible downfall is the failure to realize that we are not, in fact, bound to be selfish, but we have convinced ourselves and designed our society as if we were.

    • Superbly argued — I very much agree with your last paragraph. And, of course, the study on college students is neat empirical proof! Have you got a reference for that? Thanks for your comments!

      • Joern — I believe it’s the article referred to by Cornell economist Robert H. Frank here: A bit more careful explication is here: Neither says precisely what I maintained–that students told that people are selfish become more so–but Frank and his colleague offer reasons to think this may be the underlying mechanism in their work.

        I would swear I’ve read a study saying what I proposed more straightforwardly; perhaps I found it in Daly and Farley’s Ecological Economics textbook? In any case, Frank makes a strong case for it, even though it’s not directly empirically tested.

  2. Pingback: Swines, saints and sustainability | Ideas for Sustainability

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