Nature isn't a commodity that should be bought, sold and traded

Coral reefs
Defra's attempt to put a price tag on nature with its National Ecosystem Assessment may reinforce the dangerous conceit that our own place in ecosystems is more important than any other, argues Dr Kate Rawles

Early environmental ethicist Aldo Leopold says 'we abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect'.

A common answer to the question, ‘what is biodiversity?’ posed by Defra in a public survey was...washing powder. Raising awareness of what biodiversity is and why we need it seems crucial if we are to inspire support for its protection.

From this perspective, the various moves to bring the importance of ‘nature’ – of natural systems and other living beings – into mainstream consciousness and mainstream economics by assigning them economic and other instrumental values can appear to be a giant step in the right direction.

Even the less biologically-challenged tend to equate biodiversity loss with the tragic demise of the polar bear and other charismatic megafauna, rather than with the degradation of ecosystems and hence of ecosystem services. These services include pollination, soil fertility, clean water, carbon cycles; all critical to food and farming and our survival more generally.

Marine biodiversity is key and often overlooked. Seven tenths of planet earth is ocean and 99 per cent of the space available for life is in the sea. If all life on earth were wiped out, marine life would continue: but not vice versa. And all is far from well in the sea. Over-fishing is well understood. But how many people realise we’ve altered the PH of the entire ocean, rendering it more acidic as it absorbs anthropogenic CO2?  Or that diverse species of plankton, the very basis of marine food webs, are at risk from the warming, acidifying seas they now inhabit?

Biodiversity took such hard hits during the recent International Year of Biodiversity that it’s been turned into a decade. Viewed globally, the indicators are still going the wrong way and fast. Biodiversity is falling, CO2 emissions and other impacts are rising. Why?

One analysis is that industrialised societies are built on profoundly flawed systems and worldviews. Firstly, our economic systems are utterly committed to growth on a planet with biophysical limits. Second, our worldviews implicitly sanction the ongoing impacts of unchecked growth on nature. Mainstream ‘modern’ worldviews position people as somehow outside nature; the detached managers of natural systems that we are not really part of and can degrade with impunity.

Moreover, the entire suite of life forms we share the planet with, from earthworms to starfish, from goldfinches to flying foxes is, according to this astonishingly anthropocentric outlook, reduced to its role in providing goods and services for our own species, as if this were the only importance it has. Leopold and others argue that the key to resolving our environmental crises lies in this analysis: until we see ourselves as part of the ecological community on much the same terms as every other living being, we’ll deal at best with symptoms, not causes. As fast as we deal with one symptom – climate change, say – another will spring up, like cheat grass in a degraded ecosystem.

Here’s the dilemma. Assigning economic and other instrumental values to ‘ecosystem services’ seems critical in our economics-dominated ‘real’ world. But equally, this reduction of life to a set of sinks and services for people perpetuates a dangerously distorted myth of our own place in the bigger scheme of things. For all our technological brilliance we are still utterly earthbound, animals in habitats. And other life-forms are not only to be valued insofar as humans need or want them. This is the values-equivalence of the claim that the sun revolves around the earth. It calls for a Copernican revolution in our value system; one that dislodges homo-sapiens from the centre of the universe.

This doesn’t mean not using other forms of life. We can’t simply extract ourselves from ecology. But it does mean ceasing to regard other life forms only as a means to our ends; acknowledging the intrinsic as well as the ‘usefulness’ value of nature.

The difference this ethical shift makes in practice is profound. It’s the difference between intensive husbandry systems that treat sentient, social creatures as cogs in a food machine and husbandry systems that allow more or less full expression of a given animal’s behavioural repertoire. Or between industrial monocultures that completely displace existing local ecosystems and farming systems that work with the grain of local ecology; supporting diversity, not catastrophically reducing it.

So where does this leave us? Nature is not just nice to have. It’s a necessity. TEEB and other instrumental approaches offer much needed help in making this clear. We need biodiversity like we need water and food – but that’s not the only reason to protect it. The language of ecosystem services is at best a ladder to a wiser worldview. We need to step up fast. And then we need to kick the ladder away.

Dr Kate Rawles is a philospher and senior lecturer at the University of Cumbria. This article first appeared in 'Food Ethics', the quarterly magazine of the Food Ethics Council

Useful links

UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA)


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