Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

LECTURE | Robert Costanza on Ecosystem Services

Recently, we attended a lecture by Dr Robert Costanza, an ecological economist and sustainability scholar, presented by the Global Change Institute. Costanza has led numerous research projects and initiatives examining the role and significance of ecosystem services. In his lecture, he addressed the emergence of new approaches to understanding and measuring human development and progress, such as Butan’s measure of gross national happiness, describing them as radical departures from the prevailing paradigm of economic purpose and growth. The measure of human progress is not well served by economic measures alone, noting that estimated global progress has flattened out since about 1975 – we are not making progress at the global scale.

Costanza stressed that the ’empty world’ economic vision is no longer adequate as the world is fuller in a materially closed system (see this 2005 Scientific American article, in PDF, for an explanation of ‘full world’ economics). It’s not feasible to continue consuming resources at such a rapid rate under the pretence of living a ‘reassured life’. There is a need for vision, tools, analysis and implementation to address complex problems arising from this type of ‘progress’ trajectory. In our own work in regional development, we continue to see a kind of recidivism, where practitioners endeavour to align themselves to sustainability agendas and objectives, but rely on outdated and disintegrated approaches that ultimately focus on and affirm economic activity and results. This is contrary to calls for building a sustainable and desirable economy-in-society-in-nature.

For Costanza, a third way (or ‘third movie’) is required – rather than an ‘inconvenient truth’ or ‘reassured life’, there is need to create an alternative future that recognises limits and recognises the world as a complex adaptive system. Costanza also mentioned IHOPE, which undertakes integrated examinations of the history and future of human and the earth systems. These have traditionally been developed independently, with little interaction among the academic communities. The IHOPE website notes that “recent recognition that current earth system changes are strongly associated with the changes in the coupled human-environment system make the integration of human history and earth system history an important step in understanding the factors leading to global change and in developing coping and adaptation strategies for the future.”

Costanza addressed the importance of interdisciplinary dialogues aimed at balancing human, natural, social and built capital as the foundation for human well being: not just GDP and wealth. As a scientist, he gave a nod to social science and noted a range of theoretical propositions such as Max-Neef’s system of human needs. Increasingly, we are becoming aware that wealth is not a determinant of happiness or life satisfaction. Natural capital alone does not flow into human well being – it interacts with other forms of capital.

Ecosystem services are the benefits humans derive from functioning ecosystems. They interact with other forms of capital and, at present, many ecosystem services are under threat and degraded. Global ecosystem services are valued at 16-54 trillion US dollars per year, with an average of 33 trillion US dollars per year. Rather than private ownership mediated within a market system, many ecosystem services should be regarded as common pool resources. Consequently, different kinds institutions – not just markets – are required for ecosystem services. Costanza noted that markets work for rival and excludable services but not for non-excludable or non-rival. One such institution is a common assets trust, which was legislated in Vermont, USA. The development of a community asset institution for ecosystem services presents a different type of opportunity for natural resource management practice and advocacy, particularly from a green infrastructure perspective. For example, Costanza presented a case study and modelling of coastal protection from hurricanes, finding hurricane protection is more effective through rehabilitating wetlands than building levies.

A wellbeing focused economy can develop, and Costanza explained that a range of alternative human progress measures are emerging, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, affirming GDP as an economic measure not an integrated measure of environmental, economic and social impact. The challenge is, of course, to create a better world and break our addiction to growth at all costs and this requires not only policy leadership but deep cultural change and world view. It requires a redefinition of progress. Recognition that we live in a different world now requires re-opening the conversation about the paradigm and the vision. In responding to questions in the room about affirmation of prodevelopment policy and politics, Costanza responded with “we don’t really have democracy – it’s plutocracy”. There is a unnerving sense of urgency here as an audience member asks, “are we headed for collapse or transition? Can we make the transition without collapse?”

Harbinger is interested in this idea of ecosystem services and its use in, say, regional and urban development with the management of corridors and green infrastructure as major legacy and common assets projects. Much like those earlier naturalists and environmental advocates who campaigned for national parks and green belts. For example, a South East Queensland non-profit group has been working on a proposal to extend existing green infrastructure provision by buying back properties surrounding a conservation area. Recognising the value of ecosystem services, particularly for carbon sinking and biodiversity, there is a need to model and fully appreciate the cost-benefit of this kind of innovation. When framed as ecosystem services, and identify the relationships of multiple forms of capital, we can recognise that there is more going on than a normative understanding of conservation. There is a clear sense of intergenerational legacy from a sustainability and regional development perspective. One of the innovations it presents is shifted practice in meeting a vision and practice of sustainable development.

We were heartened to hear in this lecture some affirmation of our own working frameworks drawn from social science – particularly in relation to wellbeing, human progress and human need – which guides our approach to sustainable development. The idea of ecosystem services is potent and needs to be better integrated in geo-spatial planning which recognises territories as complex adaptive systems. In this respect, we agree that there are untold benefits in creating better links between researchers and professionals (say planners, consultants, government, policy makers) to ‘get the research out there’ and deliver ‘real development’ (rather than the ideological construct we are hinged to).  To this end, Costanza and his colleagues have established Solutions, a hybrid academic and popular magazine. A recent article by David Ervin, Darrell Brown, Heejun Chang, Veronica Dujon, Elise Granek, Vivek Shandas and Alan Yeakley examines the importance of ecosystem services for cities, calling for a transdisciplinary approach and demonstrates the value of integrated thinking and practice for regional and urban development and planning.


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