By Joern Fischer
Last night, I had an interesting chat over dinner about ecosystem services and trade-offs. For a long time, I’ve felt that somehow trade-off analysis just doesn’t really excite me. I think I’ve finally figured out why.
My reading of the ecosystem services literature is that it developed a bit like this. Once upon a time, people recognised that the idea of conserving biodiversity for its own sake did not appeal sufficiently to the general public. So the metaphor of ecosystem services was created as a way to emphasise to people that nature actually matters not only for its own sake, but also for human well-being.
Armed with a lot of enthusiasm about this new framing for conservation, people set out to identify the possibilities of this new metaphor. I’d say people at this early stage of ecosystem services research set out to find new synergies — for example, was it possible to conserve species simply by appealing to the conservation of ecosystem services?
Then, as the ecosystem services concept began to mature in theory and application, an increasing amount of economics came into it. Services were being quantified in biophysical, and increasingly also in monetary terms. Optimisation started becoming possible: where should we have which kind of service? And what will be the cost of having one kind of service to another kind of service? Thinking in decision-relevant trade-offs had arrived.
Right now, my sense is that thinking about trade-offs is increasingly fashionable in the same research community that once upon a time emphasised the need to find synergies. Selling win-win solutions — or framing papers around win-win solutions — has got more difficult. People will be skeptical and will say that’s just seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses and in fact there are important trade-offs that must be considered.
True, I guess, but to my mind also rather uninspiring.
Let me draw a parallel to forecasting versus backcasting. Forecasting is the dominant scientific mode; we generate numbers about the future based on our understanding of the present. And then we work out things will continue to get worse. (Hooray.) Backcasting — the alternative — starts by asking where do we want to be, and what do we need to do to get there? What do we need to do to break out of current trends, rather than assume they must continue into the future? I like backcasting because it lifts us out of the present set of perceived constraints, and opens our minds to possibilities and new, creative solutions.
To me, this is also the reason why I’m un-enthused about trade-off analysis. We can understand in ever more detail the various constraints imposed on current management decisions. But this psychological space of perceiving the world in constraints — to my mind — is likely to keep us locked into the same general structures and thought processes that quite possibly, we need to break through. Seeking win-win solutions — just like backcasting — may be less “realistic” right now, but as a mindset, it paves creative avenues to finding a better future.
I won’t deny that we should be understanding constraints and trade-offs more carefully in some situations, for example to avoid unintended side-effects on marginalised groups. But the overwhelming emphasis on trade-offs in the literature at present, instead of on synergies and win-wins strikes me as also, inadvertently, constraining our thinking to what is — rather than opening it to what can be.