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Forcing the Environment to Market – The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

At least as far back as 1997, researchers have suggested that earth’s ecosystems provide ‘goods’ and ‘services’ upon which humanity has relied for its’ well-being since, effectively, the dawn of time on this planet.  Ecosystems, they say, provide four main categories of ‘services’: Supporting, Provisioning, Regulating and Cultural.  The diagram below indicates these services and how they relate to (i.e., provide) the most important constituents of well-being which has now become an internationally recognised framework for our understanding.

Linkages between Ecosystem Services and Human Well-being

MEA-Figure A-Linkages between Ecosystem Services and Human Well-being

(Sadly, there is even a website called, with its equally repulsive strapline: “Emerging Markets for Environmental Assets”. Pass the cyanide pills.)

The MEA framework identified important linkages between ‘Ecosystem Services’ and human well-being. Fortunately, this can be applied to contexts of poverty alleviation.

MEA ‘Finding Two’ highlights that changes made by humanity to ecosystems, whilst bringing unrivalled levels of prosperity and well-being to some people (mainly in the wealthy ‘global north’), have contributed to the degradation and decline of many ecosystems and the services they provide everyone everywhere.  Alongside an increased risk of non-linear changes to ecosystems (that are difficult to predict), this is exacerbating poverty for many groups of people, typically in the ‘global south’ with particularly serious effects in sub-Saharan Africa.   On top of that, the decline of Ecosystem Services (ES) is predicted to continue; concurrent with increasing demands on ES from expanding populations with greater wealth, it is foreseeable that future generations will only be able to obtain increasingly ‘diminished benefits’ from ES.

The problem for human poverty is that the poor heavily depend on ES for basic elements of well-being (e.g., fishing, fuel wood, grazing land), and when faced with changes to the environment they are becoming increasingly unable to substitute one service or good for another, thereby suffering even more.  Poverty frequently exposes or exacerbates associated vulnerabilities, which are themselves effected by environmental change at multiple scales, poverty-related social issues and environmental management changes, those intended and unintended. Furthermore, ES degradation is sometimes the main issue causing poverty (MEA; 13); effects of ES degradation on the poor include disease and death (frequently related to insufficient sanitation, water and hygiene), degraded livelihoods, food supplies and the associated limitations on options, etc.

With poverty in the global south in mind, MEA Figure B shows all arrows pointing to ‘Human well-being and poverty reduction’ (upper left corner box), whereby all ecosystem change drivers and services affect Human well-being (positively or negatively).  Both Direct and Indirect Drivers of Change (top and bottom left) influence poverty directly and indirectly through changes in the ES that provide basic elements for life.  With the MEA framework it becomes obvious that humans are:

A) Responsible for many of the conditions that exacerbate and/or perpetuate poverty, whereby the poor feel the harmful effects of ecosystem degradation disproportionately.

B) Capable of reducing poverty by at least partially preventing and reversing ecosystem degradation while addressing the increasing demands for ES, without negative trade-offs.

It is, the MEA suggests, possible to manage ecosystems more sustainably and develop an effective set of responses, “substantial changes in policies, institutions and practices”, however these are “not currently underway” (MEA; 1).  Furthermore, the MEA seems to have germinated much greater interest in ecosystems and their services, resulting in significant new research efforts examining ES scope, scale and interactions, as well as new frameworks for poverty alleviation.  Unfortunately this is such a vast and important area I just don’t feel I can do it justice here…

But can the lack of well-being (i.e. poverty) have a negative feedback on the state of ecosystems and their services?

From what little I know, poverty is sometimes regarded as a downward spiral; in this context poverty can lead to a continued depletion of ecosystem services and goods, whereby both contribute to further ecosystem degradation.  The MEA indicated that ES degradation results in cross-boundary impacts, “slowing regional economic growth and contributing to the outbreak of conflicts or the migration of refugees” (MEA; 10), increased greenhouse gas emissions, changes to the availability and management of Public Goods, etc.

Several other research papers have discussed the concept of ‘System Interconnectedness’, and the notion of poverty-related feedbacks to ecosystem change producing negative effects on not only the ES/goods, but also regulating and supporting services, again reinforcing a downward spiral and producing impacts beyond the immediate locale.

So what implications does the MEA have for Sustainability Science?

The scope of Sustainability Science (SS) seems much wider than ES, however there might be a danger that many of the issues of the former could be seen to be overshadowed by those of the latter.  A very short summary of issues on which SS concentrates might go something like this (after Kates et al 2000; 1):

  • Alterations of the earth, such as climate warming, land transformation, and loss of biological diversity;
  • Social transitions, including population issues, urbanisation;
  • Economic issues, such as globalisation, inequality and poverty;
  • Resource utilisation, particularly in energy, manufacturing and agriculture

Whilst there are clearly some overlaps, many of the much wider and fundamental issues cannot easily be subsumed within an ES framework.  Furthermore it would seem that ES provide only some answers to Kates’ Key Questions (2000; 3), where ES is primarily a market-based framework, leaving the possibility for other framework solutions.

Perhaps resources that would have concentrated on SS have been diverted to deal with ES because of their accessibility and appeal to so many actors and institutions in society.

Perhaps SS as a major unifying framework will get left behind in the face of current ES trajectory, resulting in a peripheral, cottage industry of marginal interest to research funders.

Somehow, in the face of drastic change, which could soon border on emergency in many areas, solving problems related to providing basic constituents for human well-being, security and health may well capture a great deal more attention.  That’s not to say all of the issues identified in the SS framework aren’t relevant.  As a result SS and its ‘industry’ might have to adapt to the changes in interest and the associated management and allocation of budgets.

If SS is in fact seen as an overarching framework within which ES has developed as a novel, potent and visible component, perhaps proponents of SS need to reassert its strength as an organising framework and reassess the position of ES within it.

Following Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons (1968) many previously common property resources have been either privatized or placed under state ownership and regulation to prevent their degradation due to human exploitation. Unfortunately such actions create winners and losers.

In my humble opinion, any change of a common good from public to private is, in principle, a loss to the people, and a loss in perpetuity (it can, however, always revert back to a public common, but surely this is unlikely). Resources controlled by both public and private bodies have in the past been mismanaged, leading to misappropriation and/or further degradation. Neither privatisation nor state ownership grant immunity to public goods against exploitation.  That said, at least they are managed; with infrastructure and institutions in place, there remains scope for improvement in those organisations.  From this perspective, the winners are the beneficiaries and the losers are the public.  But this is a poor argument by many standards.

MEA authors state the issue about degraded commons in market-based terms: “…often more degradation of ecosystem services takes place than is in society’s interests because many of the services degraded are “public goods.”  […] there is no market for these services and no one person has an incentive to pay to maintain the good” (MEA; 10). The obverse also remains true; in the case of harm-inducing degraded ecosystem services that are public goods, there are no mechanisms in place that: A) hold anyone accountable, or B) compensate those harmed.

Also, ecosystems are both complex and cover vast distances, and public goods are no different.  There is often a temporal and spatial delay or offset between cause and effect of ecosystem changes (i.e., degradation) (MEA; 11).  It is therefore difficult to assess the ‘costs’ (in the widest sense) or benefits of any changes, and then assign or attribute them to responsible parties.  This idea is better illustrated in the MEA as follows:

“Both the inertia in ecological systems and the temporal and spatial separation of costs and benefits of ecosystem changes often result in situations where the individuals experiencing harm from ecosystem changes (future generations, say, or downstream landowners) are not the same as the individuals gaining the benefits. These temporal and spatial patterns make it extremely difficult to fully assess costs and benefits associated with ecosystem changes or to attribute costs and benefits to different stakeholders.” (MEA; 11)

Assigning both management responsibility i.e., ‘ownership’ (either public or private) and value/costs to ES that are considered public goods: A) allows the full cost of an ES to borne by the users of that service or good, who therefore can be considered jointly accountable for it (for instance I’m thinking of those held responsible for handling stolen goods are both sellers and buyers), B) creates a mechanism whereby compensation can be provided.

From this perspective, the winners are the public in general, and the losers are those not able to pay for a service or good that was once public.

Unfortunately, in support of my initial observation, the MEA points out that “the institutional arrangements now in place to manage ecosystems are poorly designed to cope with these challenges.” Hence we can see why the authors are calling for “significant changes in policies, institutions, and practices” despite the increasingly widespread support, mandate and availability of significant options.

No doubt I’ve missed something…

Images courtesy of and with greatest thanks to MEA and, from Programme for the Implementation of the Convention on Biodiversity

3 comments on “Forcing the Environment to Market – The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

  1. OnlyOnePlanet
    21 November 2012

    For educational use only…!

  2. Pingback: IUCN International - Getting the message across: the joy of infographics!

    • OnlyOnePlanet
      2 February 2013

      Wow, beautiful infographics, THANK YOU! Simultaneously inspiring and eyeopeningly frightening…!

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This entry was posted on 21 November 2012 by in Environmental Sustainability.

Part of the Problem? or Part of the Solution?

Rampant consumerism.
Widespread unsustainable lifestyles.
Unsustainable business practices.
Damaging and unsustainable travel and transport.
Extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
These are some of the problems we face.
Energy crisis.
Financial crisis.
Uneducated and un-empowered.
Environmental damage.
Food and water shortage.
Climate change.
Are you part of the problem,
Or are you part of the solution?

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