Sustaining knowledge and investment in ecosystem services

Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina.

Public Domain. Picture by Mariano, Own work 2005, via Wikimedia Commons

“Effective management of ecosystems is constrained both by the lack of knowledge and information about different aspects of ecosystems and by the failure to use adequately the information that does exist in support of management decisions.”

(Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005, Summary for Decision-makers – MA 2005, p. 23)

Climate and Ecosystems – Stability and Crisis

Deep changes in processes between and within Earth’s subsystems concerning air, rocks, water and life (atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere) are defining the current climate crisis.
When humans first emerged from the belly of nature, they observed and became conscious of the cyclical patterns of the physical world and that stability was deeply rooted in the biological processes of all living kingdoms.
Yet their life was still immersed in a world of daily disorder, where adaptation was needed. Humans also recognised that cyclical order was occasionally disrupted by extreme events such as earthquakes, floods or diseases, from which only migration could save them. However, myths reveal the atavistic fear of deeper more intense disruptions, where everything could end, where almost nothing would survive.
So, from the very beginning, humans were conscious of the fact that only stability allows a dynamic system to exist, always returning it close to its point of equilibrium after a disturbance.

The current climate crisis can be described as a severe instability of a huge and complex dynamic system – the Geosystem Climate. Stability allows a dynamic system to exist. It means the capacity to maintain the system status close to the point of equilibrium after a disturbance. So, stability is not about immobility.

A very specific kind of stability is cyclical stability, by which the system’s status changes along certain processes, but returns close to its original status. From the very beginning of human emancipation from the natural world, cyclical stability was observed as a matter of fact. Humans observed and became conscious of the night-day cycle, the lunar cycles, the cyclical appearance of stars in the night sky and the positioning of constellations, and of hot and cold periods, dry and wet periods, with winds blowing from different directions.

With this consciousness about cyclical stability, they also started to adapt their lifestyle to the different cyclical conditions better than other living species, and, led not only by instincts, they started to introduce some small changes in the world around them. They realised some changes would help them, and so they added further changes. But they were always still adapting to what they easily recognised as the immense world of which they were only a tiny part.

Humans could also see that their world was not all about cyclical order, but also about abrupt changes never experienced before, and therefore about disorder caused by geological, meteorological or biological events. These abrupt changes often only caused short term effects, so that the previous ordered status was soon reached again, at least on a wider scale, although locally the old ordered shapes could be lost forever.

Sometimes, abrupt changes would cause permanent effects, leading to migrations, when adaptation became impossible. But migrations were still based on the hope that the grand system Earth was still in place.

So cyclical patterns of the world, and therefore system stability, have always been deeply embedded in human consciousness. But this stability is first of all deeply rooted in the biological processes of all living kingdoms. From this perspective, for example, animal instincts are essentially basic routines, which regulate their lives. Without system stability, instincts can not work, and animal wildlife, as we know it, would come to an end.

The existential precondition of system stability is even more evident for plants since they grow but cannot move from the place where they germinated: they cannot run away for survival, as animals do as soon as they perceive danger.

Greenfield Papyrus - Air god Shu, supporting the sky goddess Nut as the earth god Geb reclines beneath.

Detail from the Greenfield Papyrus, photo by the British Museum – What Life Was Like on the Banks of the Nile, edited by Denise Dersin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“The structure and functioning of the world’s ecosystems changed more rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century than at any time in human history.” (MA 2005, p. 2)

“nature is in a state of crisis. The five main direct drivers of biodiversity loss – changes in land and sea use, overexploitation, climate change, pollution, and invasive alien species – are making nature disappear quickly.” (EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, § 1)

“The biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis are intrinsically linked. Climate change accelerates the destruction of the natural world through droughts, flooding and wildfires, while the loss and unsustainable use of nature are in turn key drivers of climate change. But just as the crises are linked, so are the solutions. Nature is a vital ally in the fight against climate change. Nature regulates the climate, and nature-based solutions, such as protecting and restoring wetlands, peatlands and coastal ecosystems, or sustainably managing marine areas, forests, grasslands and agricultural soils, will be essential for emission reduction and climate adaptation. Planting trees and deploying green infrastructure will help us to cool urban areas and mitigate the impact of natural disasters.” (EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, § 1)

Many natural systems are near the hard limits of their natural adaptation capacity and additional systems will reach limits with increasing global warming (high confidence).”

(IPCC, Climate Change 2022, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, 2022 – IPCC 2022, SPM.C.3.3)


The Great Mother …

From the very beginning and over millennia, mother earth had been seen and understood as the only source of human survival: feeding, clothing, and providing them with a home.

Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos

Heraklion Archaeological Museum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

…. and the first agricultural revolution

Starting in neolithic times, the adoption of agriculture allowed humans gradually to increase their food production, consumption and the accumulation of a surplus.

Agriculture in the Neil Alluvium

Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anthropisation – The age of self-referentiality

Millennia went by and finally, after a long gestation in the Middle Ages, a new anthropocentric consciousness came into being, initially fragile, but ready to grow to unseen heights.

Day by day – although the exploration of new lands and the discoveries of natural science enormously expanded human horizons – the world diminished in the eyes of the growing child: the only sun at the centre of the universe. The child grew and consciously killed his father, apparently against his heritage of faith and hope.

From inside its self-created bubble, humankind perceived all matter lying available to be shaped at will into commodities, and, unconsciously, the child started to kill mother earth. Only unconsciously, because, millennia before, in the Occident mother earth had already been pushed backstage behind masculine gods.

This was the evolution from those ages when humans perceived themselves only as a tiny part of Earth, to the present time in which they mostly see themselves as the only worthy creatures, with everything around them either commodities for pure exchange or worthless residue.

With humans now consuming more resources than ever before, the current patterns of development across the world are not sustainable. […] One of the key elements for achieving sustainable development is the transition towards Sustainable Consumption and Production (SPC) […] SCP is about fulfilling the needs of all while using fewer resources, including energy and water, and producing less waste and pollution”.

(UNEP, Sustainable Consumption and Production, A Handbook for Policymakers, 2015 – UNEP 2015, p.7)

“In Locke’s view, it was the investment of labor into the cultivation of natural resources which made them economically valuable, consequently making them the objects of proprietary rights. Leaving nature in an uncultivated state was, according to this view, almost a sin. […] Based on the ancient Roman principle of res nullius, or the similar notion of vacuum domicilium, this argument claimed that ‘empty things’, primarily land, belonged to all mankind till they were made use of  […] Any notion of a tragedy of the commons, of the idea that nature was finite and its use therefore needed to be regulated, was totally foreign to this outlook”

(N. Wolloch, Before the Tragedy of the Commons, Early Modern Economic Considerations of the Public Use of Natural Resources, 2018, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, pp 413-414)

“Will mankind murder Mother Earth or will redeem her? He could murder her by misusing his increasing technological potency. Alternatively he could redeem her by overcoming the suicidal, aggressive greed that, in all living creatures, including Man himself, has been the price of the Great Mother’s gift of life. This is the enigmatic question which now confronts Man.”

(Arnold Toynbee, Mankind and Mother Earth, A Retrospect in 1973)

Hephaestus (Vulcan), god of metallurgy
Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), Parnas (detail), Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Rio Tinto

Carol Stoker NASA Ames Research Center, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Open cut mine, Kalgoorlie.

Stephen Codrington, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Anthropisation – The time of scarcity and uncertainty for Global Commons

Mild temperatures, abundance of water and food or healthy living conditions: those things which appeared limitlessly given to affluent societies, now emerge for everyone as scarce and uncertain.

Limitless availability – the heritage of anthropocentric consciousness – has become the dominant mindset, together with the idea that technology and adaptation can overcome all physical constraints.

But the consequences are now knocking at the door of every human as all natural goods are scarce: whether fresh air and water or lithium and cobalt.

“Adaptation does not prevent all losses and damages, even with effective adaptation and before reaching soft and hard limits. Losses and damages are unequally distributed across systems, regions and sectors and are not comprehensively addressed by current financial, governance and institutional arrangements, particularly in vulnerable developing countries. With increasing global warming, losses and damages increase and become increasingly difficult to avoid.”

(IPCC 2022, SPM.C.3.5)

“In the space of a single lifetime, society Mankind itself suddenly confronted with a daunting complex of trade- offs between some of its most important activities and ideas. Recent trends raise disturbing questions about the extent to which today’s people may be living at the expense of their descendents, casting doubt upon the cherished goal that each successive generation will have greater prosperity. Technological innovation may temporarily mask a reduction in earth’s potential to sustain human activities; in the long run, however, it is unlikely to compensate for a massive depletion of such fundamental resources as productive land, fisheries, old- growth forests, and biodiversity”

(Gretchen C. Daily, Introduction: What Are Ecosystem Services?, 1997)

“The last few decades have been a time of dynamic changes across the world […]. However, these achievements and changes have come at a significant cost to the environment. Increasing demand for energy, food, water and other resources has resulted in resource depletion, pollution, environmental degradation and climate change, pushing the earth towards its environmental limits.

(UNEP, Sustainable Consumption and Production, A Handbook for Policymakers, 2015 – UNEP 2015, p.7)
Lascaux Cave, Upper Paleolithic
by Jack Versloot – originally posted to Flickr as Lascaux II, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Livestock carrier

Ocean Drover / Bahnfrend, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Lithium Mining

Salar del Hombre Muerto, Argentina / Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ecosystem Services – The rise of a new consciousness

Ecosystem Services – The rise of a new consciousness

A chasm has opened between scientific knowledge about the consequences of anthropisation and the human behaviour producing these consequences. The concept of “Ecosystem Services” is a major leap forward in the application of scientific knowledge to the environment.

Humans receive, often taken for granted, services from nature, stemming from a multitude of complex and often hidden natural structures and processes.

The evidence shows that scientific knowledge doesn’t go hand in hand with human consciousness, culture and living patterns. The evidence shows that a deep rift divides scientific knowledge about the consequences of anthropisation and the living patterns that have produced and are producing these consequences.

Environmental sciences coined a few decades ago the term “Ecosystem Services”: it was the conceptual and linguistic emergence of accumulated scientific knowledge about the environment. Next to the system approach to earth sciences, resulting in the word “Ecosystem”, has been added the word “Services” to describe the services which ecosystems provide to humans.

This was a major leap forward in scientific knowledge about the environment, highlighting the fact that what humans receive from nature is no longer taken for granted.

“Services”, referred to ecosystems, is obviously a metaphor, expressing the fact that what humans receive from nature is the result of natural processes, requiring time, energy and the presence of a multitude of elements and extremely sophisticated, often unknown structures.

“The interactions among the coupled systems climate, ecosystems (including their biodiversity) and human society […] are the basis of emerging risks from climate change, ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss and, at the same time, offer opportunities for the future. (a) Human society causes climate change. Climate change, through hazards, exposure and vulnerability generates impacts and risks that can surpass limits to adaptation and result in losses and damages. Human society can adapt to, maladapt and mitigate climate change, ecosystems can adapt and mitigate within limits. Ecosystems and their biodiversity provision livelihoods and ecosystem services. Human society impacts ecosystems and can restore and conserve them. (b) Meeting the objectives of climate resilient development thereby supporting human, ecosystem and planetary health, as well as human well-being, requires society and ecosystems to move over (transition) to a more resilient state. The recognition of climate risks can strengthen adaptation and mitigation actions and transitions that reduce risks”. IPCC 2022, SPM.1)

“The recent COVID-19 pandemic makes the need to protect and restore nature all the more urgent. The pandemic is raising awareness of the links between our own health and the health of ecosystems. It is demonstrating the need for sustainable supply chains and consumption patterns that do not exceed planetary boundaries. This reflects the fact that the risk of emergence and spread of infectious diseases increases as nature is destroyed. Protecting and restoring biodiversity and well-functioning ecosystems is therefore key to boost our resilience and prevent the emergence and spread of future diseases.”

(EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, § 1)

Dolphins of Knossos

Armagnac-commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Catch of Chilean jack mackerel (Trachurus murphyi)

Ortiz Rojas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Loch Ainort fish farm

Richard Dorrell / Loch Ainort fish farm, Isle of Skye, Scotland, UK / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Governance of an anthropised planet – extract, serve, share, sustain

The concept “Ecosystem Services” was introduced by scientists to describe and analyse the fact that Nature has always being sustaining human life: common sense until recently for every human.

Ever since the origins of humankind, its relationship with nature has been intuitively understood as a reciprocal giving and receiving, not as mere human extraction.

Threats of ever deeper natural disorder are starting to make humans aware that Nature cannot find an equilibrium when continuously subjected to extraction. 

With science providing a wealth of data that show the need for a transformation of human behaviour, some are becoming conscious of glaring contradictions between current incentives and the functions of the physical world.

If the fact that Nature is sustaining humanity’s daily life, was a common understanding for most humans until recent times, another common understanding was that humans have to return to nature what it needs, first of all, in terms of care, and sometimes of nourishment.

In the past, the relationship between nature and humans was based on the fundamental emotional disposition of care, where both phases of giving and receiving were biunivocal, also based on immediately recognised cyclical patterns of agriculture.

But today our common understanding of the relationship with nature is that it should serve humans in a strictly univocal direction, which basically leads to extraction.

Only very recently, some humans are wondering if this can continue, because of the ever-growing evidence that nature is suffering deep disruptions of its ecosystem functions, and is often turning from cyclical order – through abrupt changes – to states of deep disorder.

We know that human motion is based on incentives (motivation), but incentives are strictly linked to consciousness: indeed human consciousness is the underlying reality shaping our extremely anthropised world.

“Transitioning towards SCP (Sustainable Consumption and Production) requires a shift towards more sustainable lifestyles. This requires tackling the complex arena of consumer behaviour. […] Overconsumption as witnessed in North American, Europe and other industrialised countries is on the current trajectory of developing countries.”

(UNEP 2015, p.118)

“Sustainable consumption does not necessarily mean shopping for more sustainable alternatives; it sometimes means not shopping at all.”

(UNEP 2015, p.125)

“Such is our relationship with consumption (purchasing, using and throwing away): we know it is trapping us, but it has become so embedded in our psyche – to the point of being almost instinctive .- that we cannot let go.

Much of what we buy is intended to enhance our sense of identity. […] Identity and consumption keep moving closer together.”

(Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose. Surviving the Climate Crisis, 2020, Doing What Is Necessary)

A high-growth consumer society makes huge demands on the environment. However many ways that we find to manage land, seas, air, and forests in an environmentally sensitive way, increasing consumption tends to place increasing pressure on them. Yet commoning might, in a broader sense, allow us to consume more selectively, and thereby reduce our environmental impact.

(D. Wall, The Commons in History, 2017, p.114)

Sustaining and investing in Ecosystem services

Only when “Ecosystem Services” are widely understood in a biunivocal perspective, both the services of Nature to humans and the services of humans to Nature, arising from a shared emotional disposition of care, will humans be able to live according to the needs of ecostability.

Effective conservation, restoration and mitigation activities all demand a real change in the fundamental disposition of humankind, moving from extraction to sustaining and caring for the natural ecosystems of which it is also part.

Only this change can bring about both a widespread personal engagement and a socially sustainable mobilisation of expenditures and capital investments for nature, and, along this path, restore the basic relationships with nature that “enable human life on earth.”

“Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are one of the biggest threats facing humanity in the next decade. They also threaten the foundations of our economy and the costs of inaction are high and are anticipated to increase.”

(EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, § 1)

“If democracy is to survive and thrive into the twenty-first century, climate change is the one big test that it cannot fail.”

(Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose. Surviving the Climate Crisis, 2020, Doing What Is Necessary)
Shu and Tefnut - The first divine couple

Par Artiste inconnu — Stèle d’Ousirour, prêtre d’Amon à Thèbes Louvre Museum (détail), Mbzt (2013), CC BY-SA 3.0