I was at a “Living with Environmental Change” workshop last Friday. To be honest I felt a bit unsure why I was there, surrounded by professors and researchers. There were a few other people from NGOs as well as Defra, NE and so on.
The workshop was bringing all these people together to try to identify the drivers behind environmental change, the challenges facing the environment, and therefore the research that is needed to provide the right sort of evidence to help inform the development of new policies to address the challenges. Indeed the sort of thing that has been done countless times before, and you would think the answers were all fairly clear now.
What struck me was how little consensus there was as to what the major drivers were – there seemed to be a strong contingent arguing that the size of the global population was the main driver, while an equally large contingent saw unsustainable resource consumption (and inequitable resource use) as the main factor behind environmental degradation. And while climate change was regarded as a huge problem by many, the coming of peak oil and an impending broader resource crisis was regarded with equal fear. It was all quite scary.
Everyone agreed though that biodiversity loss was a top priority for action, while ecosystem services, and the valuation of those services, was repeatedly proposed as a useful tool to help reverse biodiversity loss by placing a monetary value on the services biodiversity provides humanity. But one comment particularly struck home. When discussing ecosystem services, one participant argued that some ecosystem services were more important than others, and ultimately there would have to be a trade-off between the ecosystem services that were really vital, and the “fluffy” ecosystem services that were basically luxuries we would have to learn to live without.
No prizes for guessing, in this world view, which ecosystem services are vital (eg food and water production, climate regulation, pollination services) and which are expendable (cultural services, existence value of biodiversity). This after all is the logical end point of taking a utilitarian view of nature: we will take nature’s services because we need these to live, but anything that does not perform a useful (or indeed economically quantifiable) function for humanity is expendable.
And from there it’s quite easy to argue that we can actually replace many ecosystem services with technical solutions. We can grow food even more intensively using GMOs, more powerful chemicals and ever more efficient methods . We can build giant towers that scrub CO2 from the atmosphere (who needs trees?). We can bury biochar in the soil (easier than managing the soil so it naturally sequesters more carbon). Who knows we could create robotic insects that pollinate crops more effectively than bees (and aren’t susceptible to diseases).
If this is sounding like some sort of 1970s SF dystopia, that is because it is. But there is a real danger that the technofix approach will gain ground as environmental problems continue to build, because it is more difficult to fix environmental problems through environmental restoration than it is through engineering. But ultimately we cannot engineer our way out of the problems we have created, and we will have to move towards a more sustainable approach to managing our environment, an environment we share with the rest of nature.
More immediately, we need to continue to emphasise that, for all its advantages, Ecosystem Services is only one approach among many, it does not have all the answers, and it is as important, indeed more important, to conserve nature, because it is the right thing to do.