Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Communicating ecosystem services, take two

"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." - George Bernard Shaw

I wasn't able to make it to ACES, but I've been reading over some of the reports. Seems like a lot of the conference was focused on how to communicate ecosystem services to politicians, corporations, and the public. As one commentator put it, "'s high time for the ecosystem services community to get its elevator speech ready."

In an earlier post, I noted that the focus on messaging ecosystem services was kind of ironic since the whole services idea was in large part about getting around the difficulty of communication. In the intro to the 1997 agenda-setting Nature's Services, the rationale was laid out: "[L]ack of understanding of the character and value of natural ecosystems traces ultimately to a failure of the scientific community to generate, synthesize, and effectively convey the necessary information to the public." (xv) Nature was supposed to be a set of functions that provided society with clean air, clean water, etc., and we could count them and maybe even monetize them; the language was supposed to express itself to those in charge.

I could stop here and say, well, we're spinning our wheels when it comes to how to convince policy-makers and businesses to see nature's benefits and that the failure to do so is bad. After all, I shouldn't need to remind anybody about climate change, loss of biodiversity, floods, water supply, etc. But I think spinning wheels right now might in fact be productive. It's at least indicative of an interesting moment. People might be realizing what they're up against, and that ecosystem service advocacy can't just be about communicating.

Memes may be one good communication tool, but deeper down there's a bigger issue here. Craig Hanson put it, "Running numbers only gets you so far. There is a political economy game to be played." As much as advocates might speak in business language to corporations, we see that they're not necessarily interested. Indeed, "Ecosystem services management doesn't necessarily generate any new revenues for business, making it a harder sell."

So people may start trying to figure out how to talk about ecosystem services in a way that doesn't necessarily mean dollars and cents, and that's always a good thing. People have certainly been doing that for a while, but maybe now it's becoming more refined, accepted, and visible. What do you think?

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