21 September 2015 - Sue Ranger

A more interdisciplinary approach to understanding and tackling conservation challenges has been growing and gaining momentum for over a decade. This has emerged from an increasing recognition that, while biological knowledge is extremely important to understanding systems, social factors are often the primary determinants of conservation success or failure. (Mascia et al. 2003) “If we want to move beyond documenting losses or identifying specific causes of decline to understanding their underlying drivers and implementing interventions on anything other than a piecemeal basis, we need to undergo what has been described as “an epiphany for . . . natural scientists”: the realization that conservation is primarily not about biology but about people and the choices they make.” (Balmford and Cowling 2006).

The value of the environment to people, or the ‘human dimension’ is now more often considered in conservation interventions and in decision-making about marine resource management, but it is seems there is often a focus on a particular type of value or set of benefits or impacts rather than an holistic view of the complex interactions between people and the environment and the values they attach to it. For example, consideration of the more easily quantifiable, often economically based, value to direct users, like fishers, marine industries and recreational sea users and can be seen to take precedence in policy and decision-making while altruistic non-use values espoused by some conservation interest groups in high profile campaigns can sometimes be seen to override use values and interests. This selective approach to which values are considered, whose interests are protected, who wins and who loses does not support equitable decision-making and not only perpetuates a divisive and confrontational narrative in conservation but is perhaps also alienating those whose values appear not to be prioritised. Balmford and Cowling are among many who identify a particular need for a more interdisciplinary approach to tackle what they see as perhaps the most pervasive underlying threat of all by reconnecting people and nature. This is a narrative that is gaining momentum in many parts of the world including the UK. A recent interdisciplinary review finds that the Western ‘disconnect from nature’ is central to the convergent social-ecological crises and is primarily a problem in consciousness. (Zylstra et.al. 2014)

The changes we need to see in the world are changes on a grand scale – changes in patterns of consumption, resource use and environmental stewardship – in fact a fundamental re-orientation of the relationship between people and the environment. As long as there is disconnection, polarisation and alienation the ‘conservation’ or ‘sustainable living’ debate remains something of a sideshow. It seems we are tripping up in the detail rather than looking at the shared underlying values that bind people and the environment.

Can a better account of and regard for the shared underlying values that bind people and the environment result in better outcomes for oceans and people?

  • Society values healthy coastal and marine habitats which deliver a wide range of benefits.
  • While UK seas are among the busiest in the world, supporting a number of economically important industries, much of the value many place on the sea has little or no economic basis.
  • There is an emphasis on monetary value and traded benefits in decision-making (partly reflecting the challenges of measuring other values and benefits).
  • Not examining and taking account of the full range of benefits people draw from the sea in decision-making risks losing opportunities to take account of and safeguard positive social impacts – including human health and wellbeing.
  • The polarisation of marine and coastal stakeholders is a well established feature of the marine resource conservation and management narrative in the UK. In many communities disagreements about management of resources remain unresolved and many stakeholders miss out on the opportunity to have their voice heard. 
  • We need to step back from narrow, polarized policy debates and foster a conversation around the shared values that connect people to a place.
  • Less tangible use values, often with no market value, and often shared by broadly in society, such as sense of place, social bonding, spirituality, aesthetic appreciation and wellbeing as well as non-use values are often overlooked, seen as less important or as too difficult to measure.
  • These shared values represent ‘Common Ground’ which could be a fertile starting point for more equitable and effective decision-making and behaviour changes which could move us closer to achieving the sustainability ideal.
  • Collaboration and interdisciplinary work is essential to including a more holistic range of values in decision-support processes.

The less tangible values are described both in Ecological Economics and in the Ecosystem Based Approach, expressed, amongst others, through Total Economic Value (TEV) and Cultural Ecosystem Services (CES) and this has delivered a ‘language’ in which they can and are being described in policy and decision-making.

The Ecosystem Based Approach broadly espouses that the flow of ecosystem services connects ecosystem function to people. Ecosystem services are the outputs of ecosystems from which people derive benefits including goods and services (e.g.  food and water purification, which can be valued economically) and other values (e.g. spiritual experiences, which have a non-economic value).

The combination of these goods, services and values provide our overall human well-being (expressed in society as health, wealth and happiness). The values that people receive from ecosystems may alter the way that they choose to use and manage the environment. This in turn leads to further changes in the environment.

CES: The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment defined CES as “the non-material benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences”. The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) defined cultural ecosystem services (CES) as environmental settings or spaces that enhance human wellbeing through activities, capacities, identities and experiences. There are a multitude more. But this is a start.

One broadly agreed upon characteristic of CES is their intangibility. Intangibility has been advanced both as an explanation for their poor appraisal but also as an impetus for better consideration of them in the future.

CES is a relatively young research field that does not wear the burden of entrenched academic traditions or paradigms.

Although CES are greatly valued by diverse stakeholders and score highly in assessments of public perceptions, they are sometimes sacrificed by decision makers for economic and ecological reasons.

Total Economic Value (TEV) is a concept in cost benefit analysis that refers to the value derived by people from a natural resource compared to not having it. TEV is typically described along these lines.

CES are usually included under non-consumptive direct use values. Some place them totally outside the economic arena while others argue that some can be measured and monetized. Those that have received the most attention are those most readily measurable: e.g. recreation, ecotourism, cultural heritage, and educational values.

Future challenges and opportunities

  • CES are well placed to bridge gaps between different disciplines, research communities, and intellectual heritages.
  • Capitalizing on the societal relevance of CES could help address real-world problems. Authors have suggested that including immaterial benefits in the management of natural resources can improve the social acceptance and legitimacy of management decisions.
  • CES have the potential to foster new conceptual links between logics relating to a variety of social and ecological issues. Milcu et al found that thoroughly accounting for CES would help to balance primarily economic considerations and facilitate a more inclusive social-ecological approach by exploring the interactions between social and ecological processes. And, in their view, mobilizing cultural ecosystem services as binding elements between social and ecological conceptual constructs meets the core idea of the sustainability ideal.

Returning to the stated aim of the CoLABoration to: “increase the capacity of the environmental sector to communicate the role of the ocean in human wellbeing, particularly through collaboration with others”

1. A public facing campaign

Working in the eNGO sector for over 20 years, mostly in membership organisations, it seemed to me that the values and benefits of the marine environment to wider society (our members) – many of which are perceived to have no direct market value and many of which are values derived from Cultural Ecosystem Services - appear to be largely/wholly overlooked in policy and decision making about he environment. Increasingly there seem to be moves from terrestrially focussed eNGOs and organisations to invest in reconnection and even mainstream marketing of CES. People are very much a part of wild places and wild places clearly benefit people.

Whereas comms from marine focussed eNGOs are still dominated by loss and overwhelming problems, marine species and places that seem quite separate from people and organisations that are saying that they are doing what’s needed to protect the oceans – wider society is almost invisible – except as part of the problem.

YET it appears that values associated with CES can be among the catalysts for publics to rally around environmental causes/adopt positive behaviours (Don’t sell the forests, Hands off our meadows and ancient woodlands) This has raised some questions:

Do our current communications about the marine environment promote alienation or engagement? Would messaging and imagery the cements the cultural bond between people and the sea support greater connectedness and engagement? Is there an opportunity to develop motivating and effective campaign messaging that has its foundation in CES?

2. More focused project work

Identify policy/decision-making processes where CES are currently being largely/wholly overlooked, but where we feel their inclusion may have a positive impact. Work with relevant bodies to incorporate CES in policy/decision-making . Monitor and evaluate. Feed learning into future work.

Design collaborative research which uses the current understanding of CES to measure real world experience. (In marine environment focus would need to be the non-consumptive use aspects of time in a coastal or marine setting – this could apply both to users who only use the environment in this way (beach visitors, ramblers) and those that also use the environment consumptively (anglers, fishermen). This could be localized (e.g. MCS CVM project) or scaled up to try and achieve national impact (e.g. MSEN IIA, a national campaign framed around these values)

Design collaborative research which assesses CES and subjective wellbeing value of marine environment to eNGO members (the ‘converted’) compared to representative public sample.