Tuesday, August 14, 2012

ESP and ESA Reflections

The past two weeks have been incredibly busy up here. I presented a poster at the Ecosystem Services Partnership fifth annual conference and at the Ecological Society of America's annual conference. It has been an exhausting, yet enlightening, two weeks. While this isn't an exhaustive review there are a couple of observations I want to put down. I meant to do this as the conferences were ongoing but I get distracted. Forgive the bullet points, this is pretty quick and dirty:

  • Ecosystem services will be THE preferred environmental policy tool of our generation- while ESP was a smaller conference, there were heavy reps from the World Bank, UN, academia, and some large NGOs like Conservation International. In other words, powerful people and institutions have fully invested in the idea and application of ecosystem services. At ESA, there were very few talks that were geared towards policy or intervention that did not mention "ecosystem services" at least once. 
  • Ecosystem services are still heavily debated and not well understood- the basic concept of ecosystem services, the benefits that humans accrue from their environment is an intuitive idea. The trickiness comes from trying to apply this idea in a policy setting and the insistence on economic valuation. There are a variety of issues here...
    • Issues of Valuation: this is the single biggest set of issues that both opponents and adherents to ecosystem services constantly bicker over. Beyond the foundational debate of whether or not it is appropriate to economically value and commodify the multiple benefits we accrue from our environment, there are serious issues involving the accounting for these benefits. Questions regarding double counting when taking regulating and supporting services into account are paramount as well as the appropriateness of different valuation methods. These are incredibly important issues for policymakers and there are a lot of good researchers looking into it. Still...it's troubling that we continue to push these programs even with these doubts and reservations regarding valuation.
    • Commodifying Nature: If we take valuation as legitimate and possible, then we must also examine the degree to which we want to expose ecosystem services to commodification. There's a HUGE difference in attempting to calculate the benefits received from our environments and using those values to better inform decision making as opposed to setting values on these services for the purpose of putting them onto the international market like carbon credits in the REDD scheme. While nearly all of the speakers at ESP, including Bob Costanza, said that ecosystem service schemes were not put in place for such explicit commodification, the existence of programs like REDD and other schemes to trade credits of varied sorts shows the risks in placing explicit dollar values on goods and processes that were once not commodified. No one at ESA, from what I saw, was talking about this, but this is a going to be one of the biggest fights within the field over the next few years.
    • More mainstream ecologists need to enter this conversation: while many people mentioned "ecosystem services" in their talks at ESA, it was unclear to me if folks had a solid understanding of some of the deeper issues involved. Yes, we can mention the multitude of ecosystem services we gain from our surrounding ecosystems, but we must be careful at throwing around the term ecosystem services in every presentation. This is an idea which is becoming increasingly specified and it borders on the irresponsible to not be better acquainted with how policymakers and other scientists are using the term. That being said, we need more ecologists to come in and speak forcefully on the issues mentioned above and to claim or re-claim this idea of ecosystem services in order to guarantee that we can better understand the ecological processes that make up ecosystem services and to be forceful advocates to warn against the excesses of commodification. But this requires a lot more outreach on ecologists and to insert themselves into the conversation.
  • Ecologists want interdisciplinary work: This was a constant, positive takeaway from these two weeks. Ecologists are taking the idea of socioecological systems very seriously and want to do more work that takes the social side of ecological questions seriously, especially in urban areas. There was a constant refrain from people I met of,"Humans are part of ecology!" So, the idea of ecosystem services, of linking the social and political with the ecological is hot right now. For my urbanists, planners, and other social scientists, if you're interested in working on environmental and ecological issues there has probably never been a more fruitful time to pursue these goals. This is, overall, the most positive aspect of this meeting to me. Even classical ecologists are coming around to this idea that studying humans is incredibly important when dealing with ecology.
There's a lot more to be said but those were my major takeaways from these two weeks. I hope to add a bit more to it later on.