More on cultural ecosystem services (#ESA2012)

By Joern Fischer

The session on cultural ecosystem services had quite a bit more nice stuff in it, some of which I summarise here. Overall, this was one of the most integrative sessions I saw at ESA, with a whole bunch of speakers well equipped to look beyond “straight ecology”.

Rachelle Gould presented case studies from British Columbia and Hawaii, both of which were pilot studies for the NCEAS working group on cultural services. She reported on an interview protocol that was used in both of these study areas – basically, the aim was to assess whether the interview protocol worked well, and whether it actually elicited cultural ES in a meaningful way. Interestingly, the interview process was designed to be all about ecosystem-related activities, management, and spatial distribution of important services – and only in the end did the discussion shift to cultural services. Rachelle felt this was quite effective at “warming people up” to the topic, and only later making them answer the really hard stuff – often, a problem with cultural ecosystem services is that they are difficult to put into words.

The protocol worked well, in that people were prompted to talk about an issue, but then they raised many additional issues also relevant to cultural ecosystem services. For example, when prompted to talk about one culturally important aspect, people often mentioned many related things all at once, mixing spiritual, aesthetic and ecological values. This strongly supports the notion that ES cannot be separated in a meaningful way, and therefore should be analysed in bundles.

Rachelle also posed a really nice example of a so-called “situational question”. People were asked “Suppose you had the choice between gathering the culturally important product X from the environment, or buying it from a shop – which would you do?” The answer is of course very telling: do people just care about the provisioning aspect of a good, or also about its cultural aspects?

This makes me think about our work in Romania! What would people do if they could buy their provisions in shops? Well, call me pessimistic, but I’d say they would go to shops. To me this suggests a potential difference between dealing with “indigenous” type cultures (which might be tightly linked to nature), and traditional farming communities, which might be very connected to nature, but not in an explicitly spiritual way – more by way of habit. This could make a major difference, I suspect!

Later in the session, Roly Russell gave an exciting global overview of what makes people satisfied with their lives. Drawing on national level data from about 100 countries, Roly separated between financial and built capital, human and social capital, and natural capital. He then used this in various regression models to see which type of capital explained how much about people’s life satisfaction (as determined from surveys, I guess). Financial capital produces limiting returns to happiness – while it is sufficient, it is not strictly necessary; some people are happy in relatively poor countries. By contrast, social capital appears to be necessary, but not sufficient for life satisfaction – some people are unhappy despite high social capital. Natural capital analysed on its own is much more complicated. For example, there is no obvious relationship between life satisfaction and biodiversity.

Things did start to get really interesting though when variance partitioning was used to look at the effects of lots of these variables all at once. The analysis considered 248 variables indicating natural, human, social, built and financial capital around the world. A principal components analysis then reduced those variables down to just a few variables, describing natural capital, human, social capital and financial capital. The outcome was fascinating: financial capital explained 60% of variability on its own; 84% of variation was explained by social and human capital alone; and natural capital on its own explained 67% of variability – more than financial capital!

The bottom line is that life satisfaction does depend on all the types of capital – but financial capital certainly is not dominant in explaining life satisfaction. This led Roly to conclude that we need to move beyond gpd, accept that this situation is complex, and acknowledge that nature is at least part of what makes people happy.

Nancy Turner then spoke about what traditional ecological knowledge, and knowledge systems, can teach us about how we can connect in different ways to nature than we currently do. Reciprocity tends to be a major aspect of such systems of ‘sacred ecology’, as Fikret Berkes terms this in his book.

The point here is simply that human culture and appreciation of nature can be intricately linked; cultural services (re-defined) thus can be seen as the benefits people obtain from nature, just as much as the benefits that nature (potentially) can obtain from people. Implicitly, this way of thinking about the world calls for a fundamental re-conceptualisation of how we relate to nature – deeply questioning whether dominant western value and belief systems will ever be able to truly support sustainable development.

Not all other talks are highlighted here, even though they were good, too. Overall, a very enjoyable session, which concluded with some good discussions!

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