We live in a fragmented landscape. This would matter a lot less if human populations were sparse and ecosystems across the globe were in a healthy state. However, the exact converse is the case today: human numbers have exceeded seven billion with the fastest rates of growth in developing and often already environmentally-stressed countries, and the UN’s authoritative Millennium Ecosystem Assessment provides solid evidence that virtually all major habitat types across the planet are substantially degraded with alarming implications for their continued capacity to support human well-being into the long-term future.
The causes of this fragmentation of landscapes, watersheds and seas are multiple. However, many, if not all, stem from the parochial way in which we have made decisions in the past. This parochialism extends beyond mere geographical localism, blind to wider-scale ramifications including for example localised flood defences exacerbating flooding elsewhere in inherently connected catchments or changing uses of land affecting water resources downstream.
We have also been decidedly parochial in terms of our limited consideration of timescales, of cross-disciplinary implications and, critically, the equity issues that arise from decisions founded on hegemony. As we know, decisions across many parts of the world have generally been taken favouring the interests of a few politically- and economically-influential stakeholders. The consequences of such privilege-based landscape management and development decisions, whether they wilfully discount or else are merely blind to the interests of broader constituencies of stakeholders, has implications for excluded communities that are at best uncertain and more often profoundly adverse. Practical examples range from the national level where policies favouring an imperial power or other ruling elite can result in hardships for other people living more directly natural resource-dependent lifestyles, where subsidies favour landowners but marginalise those dependent upon land over which they have no title, or in development schemes such as major dams and water diversion projects that tend to favour richer industrial sectors and urban centres often to the substantial detriment of those reliant on the diversity of natural processes performed by river systems. As a general rule, it is the powerless majority that loses out under such arrangements, running against fundamental democratic principles.
“We can change and indeed…have a long tradition of societal transformation once challenges become clear.”
The pre-twentieth century history of many European countries and the nations that fell under their imperial control repeatedly played out this story of governance primarily serving the interests of governing classes. It is also interesting that many of the uprisings that led to the independence former overseas colonies, quieter revolutions, regime changes and major restitution cases elsewhere, arose from a direct revolt against the annexation of vital resources. Examples range from salt protests in India to the redistribution of land and other rights in Zimbabwe and South Africa and to First Nations claims over land and for historic damages in the USA and Canada. The saga is also played out at a global as well as national scale.
It is not too controversial to reflect that political and industrial decision-making frameworks, and the instincts of many who ascend the ‘greasy pole’ to such strata of decision-making, operate at far remove from fully democratic ideals even in the more developed economies of the modern world. And it is also clear that the unintended consequences of developed-world resource exploitation has substantial, often devastating, implications for the vitality of natural resources at a global scale and for the livelihoods of the many people who share and depend upon them. Our historic path of development has been largely blind to, or perhaps wilfully myopic about, its ‘footprint’ on the biosphere, those who share it and the longer-term implications for all. The problem arises from too narrow a world view about technologies and demographics with world-wide reach.
Hardin’s well-known parable of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ is often cited as an inevitable outcome of the exploitation of common resources wherein, without private or corporate ownership and centralised governance, the rewards from private overexploitation but the sharing of ‘costs’ by all tend to result in the progressive destruction of commonly-owned resources. And there are certainly many instances of aggressive and competitive exploitation leading to the degradation or even collapse of marine and fresh water fisheries, grazing lands, water resources and other important ‘commons’. At a macro scale, we are even overloading the ‘global common’ of the atmosphere with waste gases, discharged without cost into this massive shared natural resource, with serious implications for the stability of both climate and the protective ozone layer as well as local health issues. However, countervailing this trend of degrading commons are very many examples of effective and largely sustainable management of common resources from across the world and throughout history. These range from contemporary statutory agreements such as the (far from perfect) EU Common Fisheries Policy which at least nods towards gearing fishing efforts to the sustainable limits of fish stocks, through to tribal and local community protocols governing rights and seasons for grazing of common land that can be witnessed from equatorial savannahs to long-established commoners’ rights in some parts of Great Britain. The concept of governance framed by equitable sharing of finite common resources, be that at scales from international Government through to less formal village level codes and practices and even some religious protocols, is therefore long-established in human resource exploitation. Indeed, most of the many definitions of the word ‘government’ relate to the manner in which resources are allocated across society.
We live today in an era when a burgeoning global human population is colliding with seriously degraded and degrading ecosystem quality, making increasingly evident and urgent the need for the moderation of human activities towards the achievement of a sustainable balance. This necessarily includes ensuring equitable access to resources, essential for social stability at everything from local to global scales but also reflecting the inherently connected nature of today’s pressing problems and their solutions. For example, carbon-rich emissions from anywhere in the world affect all who share this planet’s climate system, and equally carbon sequestered in any one locality represents a potential benefit to everyone on Earth including future generations.
So, how do we go about recognising and adapting our behaviours to manage in a sustainable way the many ‘environmental commons’ upon which we rely but have consistently overlooked in decision-making at the very least since the outset of the Industrial Revolution?
Lessons from recent history can help us. An interesting trend played out in Great Britain throughout the course of the twentieth century, replicated in part or full from the USA to Australia and across much of Europe and with ripples spreading to less developed and developing nations. This takes the form of a transition from the familiar saying that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, exemplifying the uncontested rights of (almost exclusively male) land-owning classes at the outset of that century, towards a progressively more egalitarian model secured incrementally by legal controls on development, protection of sites of wildlife and heritage interest, constraints on activities likely to contaminate water and air resources, as well as sanctions on noise, nuisance and a range of other impositions on civil society. This trend is well documented through additions to the statute book, but also within the development of common law as well as in subsidies and changing societal norms of acceptability. Viewed through the lens of hindsight, the cumulative effects of all these small steps amount to a radical and rapid societal transformation. So what lies behind this trend, replicated across much of the developed world?
The major transition lies in the distinction between, on the one hand, the ownership of land and other key natural resources and, on the other, the many benefits that these ecosystems provide to people regardless of ownership. In essence, the enjoyment of these benefits from nature, ranging from rights to clean water, visually-pleasant landscapes, flood management and the continued existence of socially-valued species, has progressively supplanted an absolute right of landowners to do whatever they please with assets under their ownership. This revolution is brought about by a shift in focus from natural resources as possessions towards the functions that they perform and the many benefits that flow from this to all in society.
Today, we describe these many societal benefits from the natural world as ‘ecosystem services’. Furthermore, through major international studies such as the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (reporting in 2004/5) and also The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB reporting in 2010), we are increasingly aware of the irreplaceable value of these services to humanity, and also the parlous prognosis of allowing their continued degradation. Science and the global reach of the media and monitoring of the environment have illuminated how ecosystems provide us with a wide range of often unappreciated services that support all facets of our wellbeing from basic biophysical survival and health through to economic resources and broader opportunities to enjoy a decent quality of life.
“This Revolution is brought about by a shift in focus from natural resources as possessions towards the functions that they perform and the many benefits that flow from this to all society.”
Our new awareness extends also to a deeper and rapidly-developing understanding of the true value of the natural world. Far from being a net expense and constraint incurred for largely altruistic reasons, and therefore an unwelcome drag on a narrowly-framed misrepresentation of ‘development’, the many services provided by nature have real and substantial economic importance. Some, such as the storage and cleansing of water or the production of food and fibre from fertile soils and marine waters, have values that are (albeit imperfectly) captured in market prices. Others, such as climate stability and the regulation of air quality and flood peaks, we tend to value only in terms of health and property damage and civil disruption when they are lost or overridden. Other services, such as pollination, the recycling of nutrients and recruitment of stocks of fish of commercial and/or recreational value, remain external to current markets yet are vital for the production of other services and the future resilience of both ecosystems and the economy that it ultimately supports. And how are the diverse yet elusive values of aesthetic, inspiring, educational and spiritually-uplifting places adequately captured in purely monetary terms? This full breadth of services from the natural world contributes to the wellbeing of humanity, and the omission of any one necessarily impoverishes us all. It is therefore essential that we find out how to capture them in economic terms, which may be expressed as monetary values but are not necessarily restricted to that narrow metric, to ensure that they become progressively and completely included and safeguarded in far-seeing governance and business decisions.
This reawakening to our interdependence with the ecosystems with which we evolved is long overdue. However, it is now progressively beginning to influence the policy landscape as well as some leading business practices. The publication of the UK Government’s White Paper The Natural Choice in June 2011 is a very welcome example of national leadership recognising the importance of what is known as the ‘ecosystem approach’, or in other words rethinking how we go about future development with ecosystems and their many services as core considerations. Other countries are following suit in one way or another. Some business sectors most affected by resource scarcity or volatility of costs have also taken a leadership role. One example is the forest products sector, spanning everything from timber to paper and printed products, players within which have instituted a range of certification schemes including the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to drive sustainable forestry practices securing both dependable supplies into the future but also greater equity, environmental responsibility and market differentiation. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is achieving similar outcomes for marine and some freshwater fisheries. Both the FSC and the MSC were instigated by partnerships including major businesses aware of their impact on these ecosystems and alert to the need for more sustainable practices as a matter of corporate responsibility but also the security of future supplies. Further examples of business-led natural resource stewardship include Organic and other food chain certification schemes, as well as source protection actions of some bottled spring water providers.
There are also many instances of water service companies from the UK to France, the USA, Australia and South Africa actively working on catchment management and providing incentives for farmers and other land users to withhold practices that degrade the quantity and/or quality of water draining from landscapes beyond water company ownership. Indeed, many markets have been created, known as ‘paying for ecosystem services’ (or PES), recirculating a proportion of charges to water service customers into cash incentives for upstream land managers to maintain or revert to more sustainable practices which, in turn deliver real economic benefit to downstream water-users. The PES principle is gaining traction across the world to tackle other ecosystem services too, including the sequestration of carbon in forests and other land to address the increasing climate change concerns of governments and businesses. There are also PES markets developing for the safeguarding of biodiversity and a range of other socially-valued ecosystem services.
We are living in a time of profound change, with science providing the insights to help us understand today’s pressing problems and to determine progressive adaptations of policy, economic incentives, business practices, land uses and other customs reflecting the deep interconnections between people and ecosystems. We are witnessing some exemplars of the rebalancing of the historic rights of private land-owners progressively towards the beneficiaries (or victims) of the services provided by those ecosystems. However, this progress has been patchy to date, often localised and addressing one of just a few services. Opportunities for more true ‘joining up’ are available to us; the UK’s White Paper The Natural Choice is an emphatic statement, the international Convention on Biological Diversity’s championing of ‘the ecosystem approach’ since 1992 is another. We are learning more about how an improved environment has benefits for both physical and mental health, contributing also to ‘hard’ real estate values and so regional regenerations. However, converting these bold intentions into practical reality in a troubled, economically-challenged world laced with vested interests and established rights and expectations is no mean feat. We are talking, in reality, about a revolution of heroic scale that supplants an industrial model of liquidation of natural resources for short-term private profit, replacing it with measured development that serves the best interests of all in society in the long term. Yet the consequences for failing to bridge this gap are as clear as they are precarious.
Today, we are better armed with science, economic analyses, statements of political commitment to social equity, a never more active voluntary sector and some progressive businesses leading the way. And, as we have seen in the transition throughout twentieth century Great Britain, we are capable of progressive change that cumulatively leads to profound social transformation without bloodshed. But what we do lack, profoundly so, is the luxury of time. Political timidity now, or the retrenchment of policy towards protectionism and anachronistic models of ‘growth’ that continue to ignore serious ramifications for our planetary life support systems, is no longer morally nor even economically acceptable. Given the transparency of the consequences were we to step back from courageous action to secure a decent future for all, future generations would have solid grounds from which to condemn us for the continued maximisation of self-benefit whilst leaving them and their inevitably impoverished lives to pay the bill.
But let us finish on a positive note. We can change and indeed, as evidenced by past mass mobilisation to confront wars and diseases, have a long tradition of societal transformation once challenges become clear. Our scientific understanding will never be perfect, for such is the nature of science and the quest for ever deeper knowledge, but we certainly know enough to define the magnitude of today’s urgent challenges, their causes and the kinds of remedies that might best secure or restore the vitality of ecosystems essential for our continued wellbeing. We have seen political will expressed and hope to see it now put into action across all policy areas. We are beginning to articulate many formerly overlooked services in economic terms, including both monetised and non-monetised quanta, which is focussing the attentions of businesses and governments at local and national scales. And we have a wide range of global conventions and international institutions, from the UN to the EU and the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), to make the connections that are essential for grappling in an integrated manner with the global scale of the grave issues now confronting our species.
Commitment to practical action to secure a better future for all, supported by the ecosystems that we now know to be vital in providing for our continuing needs, is currently the only generation-defining ‘big decision’ of any import. We must not fail in this audacious endeavour.
Dr Mark Everard’s new book Common Ground: The Sharing of Land and Landscapes for Sustainability is published by Zed Books, London. You can find out more about Mark’s other books and work at http://www.markeverard.co.uk.