ES = E$ ? (Kai Chan) … and other insights on cultural ecosystem services (#ESA2012)

By Joern Fischer

Here is a work in progress report on the symposium on cultural ecosystem services, happening right now!

Anne Guerry started the session with a broad overview and showed that the classic notion of looking at total economic value for ecosystem services doesn’t work in practice. Anne went to great lengths to argue that the concept of ES is still useful, but that we have to get beyond dollars.

Anne then discussed several case studies (e.g. here), which basically used the INVEST method developed by the natural capital project. More strongly re-focusing on cultural services, Anne then reported on how the working group at NCEAS had tried to bring CES into decision making and into the dialogue about ES:

  1. By cataloguing and addressing issues that hamper their inclusion – e.g.
    1. Many challenges are exaggereated or misunderstood (e.g. $ valuation);
    2. Many different metrics could be used;
    3. By trying to develop a framework to operationalise CES;
    4. By testing that framework;
    5. And by synthesizing literature connecting non-material benefits and wellbeing.

Picking things up pretty much at this point, Kai Chan then spoke about integrating cultural ES into decision making. He observed that CES were “everywhere and nowhere” – aesthetics and recreation seem to always be considered, but most other CES rarely appear to be considered in as much detail as they deserve.

Presenting a fisheries examples, Kai showed that the monetary value of a particular fishery had increased, and also overfishing went down. Traditionally, this would be considered a win-win solution for ecology and the economy. However, through the cultural changes that went hand in hand with these changes, many local fishermen and indigenous people had suffered; their culture, their traditions, social cohesion, identity, and so on. So just dollars and fish were unable to capture the complexity of the situation. Social and ecological changes co-occur and cannot be meaningfully separated in this example.

Kai concluded by summarizing a framework how cultural ecosystem services might be better included in decision making in the future. This framework will be published this month in BioScience – so keep an eye out for that one! The framework involves steps such as:

  1. Get consent by people to engage;
  2. Figure out who is deciding and why?
  3. Characterize social-ecological context;
  4. Look at benefits, ecosystem services and values;
  5. Determine influence diagrams and feed that back to decision makers.

One problem I have with this, and with much other “natural capital project” work on ecosystem services is that it all seems very top-down. Who are these all-powerful decision makers that must be informed? Is this how societies actually operate? I feel something here is lacking. Despite attempts to empower local people (somehow), in the end, it seems to boil down to these all-powerful decision makers, who rationally compare scenarios and make informed decisions. I am just not sure that this is how the world works…. Thoughts on this, anyone?

3 thoughts on “ES = E$ ? (Kai Chan) … and other insights on cultural ecosystem services (#ESA2012)

  1. The tension between top down and bottom up approaches is a constant challenge in understanding and managing complex systems and, as with most things, I think this works best when there is a meaningful balance between the two extremes (both bottom up and top down). Interestingly, and despite the many and well known flaws, economic valuation of ecosystem services does apply both approaches. The economist (top down) defines the structure for the valuation: what is to be valued and how, but the actual values are determined (bottom up) by ‘society’ based on the assumption of consumer sovereignty. So what is the problem? I think it is in part related to how we do science and not limited to economic valuations (athough they are a good example of the problem).

    The nature of science is that we tend to think of a ‘problem’ and then try and ‘solve’ it. For example, we ask how valuable are [x] ecosystems services? Defining what those services are and then looking for tools that can appropriately express those values. This allows us to have a clearly defined problem and set of tools for addressing that problem (which is generally what funders expect us to provide). However, this means that any subsequent use of a bottom up approach is constrained within the normative assumptions inherent within the problem definition and tool selection stage. The economic valuation of ES is a perfect example of this constraint in action.

    It is much more difficult to get funding when you have not defined the problem or the tools that are required to tackle it, and this is required if you want bottom up and top down approaches to ES valuation to have equal footing in problem setting and subsequent valuation and management.

    Secondly, there is an issue with generalization. We don’t seek to find the value of ecosystem services for each individual, but rather express a single value that represents the aggregate ‘societal’ valuation. Again this is a standard notion in science. However, in the ES context this is fundamentally problematic. When some of the important values individuals ascribe to ecosystems fall outside the normative values that society at large ascribe to those same systems they are unlikey to be reflexted in aggreagte meansures of value.

    Plurality of values, distribution of harm and benefits and the tensions between individual Vs societal values are poorly addressed in the ecosystem services concept. I think there is an interesting debate to be had regarding how these two issues (problem definition and individual Vs societal values in ES research) might be addressed, but I suspect there will be no easy answer.

  2. Joern, great questions at the symposium (including the one you conclude with in this post), and great thoughts here. To make sure that the blogosphere hears some of the answers that Anne Guerry, Terre Satterfield, Neil Hannahs and I provided to your obviously provocative question, I summarize my one here.

    Your question: “Despite attempts to empower local people (somehow), in the end, it seems to boil down to these all-powerful decision makers, who rationally compare scenarios and make informed decisions. I am just not sure that this is how the world works…. Thoughts on this, anyone?”

    My own response: We agree that there is rarely an all-powerful decision-maker. That’s one of the reasons why–in the BioScience article just out ( we explicitly identified one of our key audiences as stakeholders who currently feel disempowered in existing political processes for ecosystem- and resource decision-making, and who are seeking new ways to express their concerns. These new ways include ways that are perceived as legitimate to those who wield power, ways that will help rally a movement in support of perceived oppression, etc. We hope that the work we’ve been doing provides such ways. And I hope that you were as moved as I was when you heard Rachelle Gould’s quote from one of her interviewees in Hawai’i, who made this point more eloquently than I possibly could. I won’t steal Rachelle’s thunder, so look out for her article to come.

    To sum up: We realize that the context for ecosystem- and resource management is often a messy political process. We hope to enhance the voices of those who are suffering unfairly in the status quo.

    • Thanks Kai! Really nice to get your words here, too, rather than just my take on the whole thing. I think it’s good and important that many people (especially from the cultural services?) are now working towards a more participatory way of dealing with ES. I still feel that there are different “schools of thought”, if you like — the deeply participatory agroecology people, for example, will likely approach local problems differently (and their solutions) than most INVEST-type people. This isn’t to say that one is right and the other is wrong. In summary, good to see that those “bottom-up” type elements are increasingly being considered in ES research!

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