Viva la revolución

13th May 2013


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Policymaking is finally starting to consider the natural environment, says Mark Everard

Humans are a learning species. However, the pace at which we learn is decidedly patchy. Technological development over the past couple of centuries demonstrates our ability to assimilate knowledge rapidly, as innovations cascaded from water-driven mills to instantaneous global datasharing, driving unparalleled economic growth and the creation of the market economy itself.

Yet we’ve been far slower to grasp lessons about the unintended legacies of resource exploitation and technology choices. We have been blind, initially through oversight and latterly as a result of vested interests, to the implications for those ecosystems that constitute the most basic resource supporting our future security and wellbeing.

While the rhetoric of sustainable development – ecology, economy and society as a connected set – has entered political and corporate language, the intimacy of their interdependence has yet to deeply reform business practices and cultural attitudes; short-term market advantage and electoral cycles still dominate.

A new way of thinking

Ecosystems thinking recognises the multiple, often overlooked benefits which the natural environment provides people, or which would compromise wellbeing if degraded. The global pressures of more than seven billion people on dwindling resources make ecosystems thinking ever more urgent.

The “ecosystems approach” was a significant milestone, launched by the convention on biological diversity and which, 20 years on, continues slowly to unfold into the mainstream. Ecosystems services comprise a central conceptual framework of the approach.

Political awareness about ecosystems services rose sharply with the publication of the UN’s millennium ecosystem assessment (MA). The MA assessed the status of major global habitats, painting an alarming prognosis for human wellbeing. Importantly, it recognised a diversity of values to different stakeholders. The UK’s 2011 national ecosystem assessment (NEA) became the world’s first national-scale assessment, and has spawned considerable interest as a knowledge base from which to chart a different kind of future.

Global transition

The decline of ecosystems and their implications for our wellbeing are familiar narratives, yet we have never been better equipped to recognise and consider the broader values flowing from the natural environment in policymaking, business strategies and other important decision-making activities.

Some ecosystems-based policy shifts are evident. The natural environment white paper, published in June 2011, recognises that people cannot flourish without nature, and that the economic and social benefits of the natural environment must be properly valued.

Other recent UK policy documents – such as the Scottish government’s land use strategy and Defra’s water white paper – draw upon ecosystems principles and elements of the NEA, acknowledging the profound importance of natural processes for future wellbeing.

The policy shifts seen in the UK are far from being isolated incidents. Government-level interest in applying the NEA in the Indian state of Maharashtra; the incorporation of ecosystems services into the US conservation reserve programme’s land-use subsidy system; and the long-standing inclusion of the ecosystems approach into management of the Great Barrier Reef, are just three among many examples of growing global interest in the ecosystems approach.

The real world

Progressive action has also arisen out in the real world, beyond the policy sphere. The British water industry has shown particular leadership. Under the 2005–10 investment cycle, United Utilities implemented SCaMP (sustainable catchment management programme) on upland holdings in the North West of England.

The firm recognised that positive management of water-yielding, but historically degraded, upland catchment areas would benefit both biodiversity and customer value by controlling rising water colour. Diffuse pollution from agriculture is the greatest threat to public water supply abstractions for South West Water (SWW).

Its “upstream thinking” programme recycles customer investment into farm advice and improvements with an anticipated 65:1 benefit-to-cost ratio based on projected savings in water treatment.

Advice, relationships and associated payments from SWW to farms that affect its core natural asset are brokered through the Westcountry Rivers Trust, a non-governmental organisation (NGO). The trust helps agricultural businesses to save money by working with them to revise practices, benefitting river health, tourism, farmers and the rural economy.

For both SCaMP and upstream thinking, further ecosystems services benefits are achieved for “free”, including carbon sequestration; protection of fish stocks and biodiversity; amenity uses; stabilisation of farm incomes; and hydrological improvements.

A wide range of urban initiatives, from “green infrastructure” to “urban forests” and sustainable drainage systems (SuDS), use natural processes to provide low-input, multi-benefit solutions to flooding, air quality, ambient noise and other connected issues.

The revolution continues

As leading players in government, business and NGOs begin to acknowledge the importance of considering whole socio-ecological systems in decision making, we are now at least past “first base”. We may even be close to the second phase, with the creation of functioning markets that internalise the value of ecosystems services in at least some areas of public and business interest.

Austerity measures tend to refocus priorities on short-term business stimuli, regardless of costly longer-term consequences. However, with leading business players recognising real competitive advantage through considering the natural environment, ecosystems thinking is likely to weather the present economic storm and continue to shape mainstream practice.

Through initiatives like the ecosystems market taskforce and the natural capital committee, the government is actively working towards building natural capital into real markets and national accounts.

The revolution we are witnessing in attitudes towards ecosystems highlights the urgent need to reintegrate nature into human practices, and its impact on people is not unlike that of the earlier industrial and agricultural revolutions. The ecosystems revolution is a defining feature of our age; either we rise to it, or else we ensure a progressively impoverished future.

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