Our Balancing Act – The real value of ecosystems
A book revealing the economic and ecologic value of the planet’s forests and other ecosystems.
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A flock of starlings

Tue, 08/03/2010

by Willem van Laarhoven, Sint-Oedenrode, August 3, 2010

It has long been believed that starlings have a complex system of communication. A sophisticated system, that enables them to fly around in enormous billowing flocks without collisions. But it’s far more primitive. One starling simply reacts to the movement of another starling, flying in the same direction. But who starts the motion? The outer rank of starlings. If they fly to the right, in one wave all starlings follow. So, the system is determined by all of the starlings, but the boundaries by just a few.

The preservation and management of ecosystems is crucial to our survival. From the harm we do to our ecosystems conflicts arise. Conflicts about the consequences of water pollution and deforestation, about the damage done by sand storms and flooding, about the seas that are emptied of their fishes. It’s obvious that we have to change our way of life, our behaviour. But why is it that the awareness that we as humans seem to reach the borders of our normal existence, for most of us is not a reason to change our behaviour fundamentally? We are confronted with the most complex issue of our time. An issue, that touches on the differences between the poor and the rich, on the differences between poor and rich countries. That touches on the core of us humans functioning in the global ecosystem. We already breached the boundaries of the local ecosystems, with our urge to discover and explore new worlds, and with our incessant drive for more material affluence and our technological knowledge. An urge and drive we globalized, with as a consequence that at the moment we have a direct impact on the global ecosystem. Ecologically speaking, an exceptional endeavour. Outside us humans, this has never been performed. As it has never been performed by any organism seams to create such a damage on it’s own ecosystem that it threatens to bring about its own destruction.

How will we be able to see ourselves as an essential and functional component of the global ecosystem and from there are able to contribute to its preservation and care? It seems so obvious. But why did this never happen, and isn’t it happening still? Apparently we have not been able to value our ecosystems to the extent that we take its care as a matter of course. How did we come to this point? For all these years, did we lack the understanding? An understanding of the interaction between our behaviour and the performance of ecosystems? Most certainly not! Ecology, as a science that studies ecosystems, might still be young, but for a long time now we cannot hide behind a lack of knowledge. But what is to be done now?

Lets look at the tragedy of the commons (see 1.1). What did actually happen? The commoners did not have to pay for the use of the commons. Economic valuation was out of the question. As a consequence economic valuation was not weighed against the interests of the commoners. If they should have had to pay, the commoners would have demanded the local government, as the landlord, to prevent boundaries being crossed, which would end in a lower value of the property. Obviously the government did not feel any responsibility for the preservation of the commons, because it consented in free use and the commoners obviously did not feel any responsibility because they did not have to pay. What actually failed was a market with a proper valuation for and by all parties involved. It’s the same with ecosystems. We do not have to pay for the destruction of ecosystems. For protection and preservation we did not apply any value to the ecosystems, and thus not to the products that stem from them.

But you should say that for the commoners it would be very interesting to maintain the commons, exactly for the reason that they could be used so cheap. Why did a collective effort to protect the common interests of the group not appear? The assumption is that the commons where not maintained because nobody felt the responsibility to do so. But was it really a matter of the feeling of responsibility? Or was it a lack of understanding of the consequences, and for that in time they did not recognise the gradual decline? Or did nobody wanted to invest in the maintenance, because every commoner thought that he would be the only one who would invest and all the others would profit from his investment. Or is it the discussion on the so called ‘free riders’, which still in our time always flares up if measures have to be taken in the common good? Who did had to take the responsibility? If individuals are not capable to organise themselves at a higher level to protect their own interests, is it not the government’s turn? Is it not the government that locally, regionally or nationally is in the position and had the power to rule?

Lets consider another commons. The rainforests, that are converted for economic gain from timber and commercial crops, such as soy beans. Why can’t we stop this? Obviously, the economic goods are more important than the goods of the ecosystems. Although it’s even very much the question whether the goods of the ecosystems were even taken into consideration. In this the same question as with the commons forces itself upon us: Why does the government feels no responsibility? The answer is obvious: the economic gains on the short-term outrun the reputed disadvantages on the long run, if ever the persons involved understand this.

So let’s stay close at home. Why are there still companies that do not want to invest in systems for sustainable energy? Purely for economic reasons. So, would it not be better if we should exhaust all the fossil fuels, so the prices will rise enormously and alternatives will be more affordable? Does it make any difference if we do this on the short, or on the long run?

Ecosystems protect everything with value for the system, and strive for the survival of the system. The individual, as the ‘lowest’ part of the system, at first protects itself. Only at a higher level the system takes charge. The survival of the individual depends on this higher level. The entire system of ecological relations, the worldwide ecological web, is founded on this principle. It appears as if the politico/economic system must take charge, provided we want to make fundamental changes to the system on a reasonably short notice.

The preservation and restoration of ecosystems is seen as the biggest challenge the world faces. Which raises the question what the relevance is of this challenge from an ecological perspective. Also from a sustainable perspective it is very much the question if it’s interesting at all whether homo sapiens will survive or not. From a biological perspective, we humans behave no different as any of the other species: the circumstances allowing, we expand our territory and increase in numbers. Why restrain human behaviour and boost the dynamism of plants and animals? Some of us are of the opinion that if we do not interfere the natural balance of our planet will be severely disturbed. But is the perceived threat to our natural balance really such a big problem? Let’s assess this question form the perspective of the ecosystem.

Disturbance of the natural balance of ecosystems is something that actually does not exist. Because there is no natural balance, it cannot be disturbed. Ecosystems survive at the grace of instability. The incessant search for and recovery of the right balance under the influence of never ending distortions, is exactly the power of ecosystems. So why should humans not be part of this? An intriguing question, that opens up quite a new perspective. We should very much be aware that the “natural instability” could find a new “equilibrium”, and recover at a level where there is no place for humanity. In the same way as with the succession of ecosystems, when in the course of time the composition of the species changes. In part or totally, one species vanishes in favour of another. The disappearance of the dinosaurs springs to mind.

Why would humans be an exception to this rule? From an ecological point of view no viable answer to this question can be conceived. In the mean time we act as every other species in the various ecosystems, we put up every effort to survive with as many humans as possible. An ecosystem includes individuals, without individuals there is no system. It’s not the system which responds, as sometimes is claimed, but the individuals and as a result the system as such. This is the ecological law of reciprocity: if the individual takes care of the system, the system will take care of the individual.

So whatever way we bend or turn, it’s all about the individual. Because if we aim to change individual behaviour, we would at the same time maintain the systems within the boundaries of the dynamism that is typical to the system. But I have shown that the desired change of behaviour might not be forthcoming, as with the commons, or the change would occur much to slow.

Could this be the result of the lack of a direct link between the individuals’ behaviour and the consequences of this behaviour? Shouldn’t we be looking for direct feedback? And how should this come about? We cannot at every moment for everybody picture the consequences. Can we come up with a common denominator, an indicator with which relatively simple the consequences can be pictured? We have the common denominator: money. But thus this denominator helps us establish the value of ecosystems?

Already since the beginning of the nineties in the past century, the food-industry discusses how consumers can be motivated to buy green products. In general these products should be more expensive and the right price is considered and important item in the choice of products. But the question is not how cheap or expensive something is, the question is how a product is appreciated and what the buyer is willing to pay. If the total environmental burden is calculated in the price, many products and services might become very expensive indeed. The energy used appears to be a fair standard for the pollution caused by production. Research shows that for a specific category of products the price was strongly determined by the amount of energy required for the production in combination with the energy-content of the product. The higher the price, the heavier the environmental burden.  Yet there are a few striking exceptions: for some products and services the price does not follow the energy used. These were the products and services of which the emotional appreciation (perceived value) negatively or positively deviates. Take for instance waste (negative deviation) and deodorants (positive deviation). So in the case of deodorants the price paid, is higher than the energy used to produce it.

Could we use this principle of ‘emotional appreciation’ to ad ecological value to products and services? This is only feasible if we are able to develop a system that can balance the price that has to be paid against the perceived advantage of the change in behaviour. So we have to connect something, to products and services, that results in a higher appreciation. Compared to what mobile phone providers do when they offer a mobile phone for little money or even for free with a subscription. The appreciation for the phone is high, but is paid through the subscription. This is exactly what we see with cars. They are appreciated for their sportsmanship or luxury not just to bring us from A to B. And they give us a feeling of (recreational) freedom or adventure, and boost our individuality, our ego, enhance social behaviour, give us status and a competitive advantage in the battle for the best genes – “If you ain’t got no wheels, you ain’t get no heels…”. Likewise air travel is not appreciated because it’s such fun to fly, but because it’s so easy to go to a sunny destination. Economic value and emotional value are detached.

So where are we now? Is it clear what there is to be done to step on the right track of the dynamic ecosystem’s challenge? How does the ecological law of reciprocity, affects us? How can we say goodbye to the life we have come to cherish so vehemently? And how can we all fly into the same and desired direction without colliding into each other?

“Be the change you wish to see in the World”, is what Mahatma Gandi told his brethren. And they freed their country of colonialism.