Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ecosystem services justice?

"Designing better environmental governance always entails addressing the question: better for whom?" (Norgaard 2010)

I've written recently a lot about communicating ecosystem services. Conservationists, regulators, scientists, and entrepreneurs are all struggling to make the concept intelligible to decision-makers (and ultimately make nature qua service intelligible to these politicians and businesses...) But there's another sense communication is at play here, in the idea that the public can express values concerning ecosystem services through some sort of deliberative arena. Let me explain.

The idea that people can and should discuss their values, preferences, and opinions about the use and maintenance of nature's benefits finds its home in ecosystem services economics perhaps most notably via Bob Costanza. In a sense, he is drawing broadly on folks like Habermas and Sen, who wrote under the banner of social choice theory. What these authors are getting at is that environmental values per se are of a different nature than mere preferences about the way the world should be and as such cannot be reduced to choices about, say, which brand of carbon credit I want to buy. Instead, they have to be expressed, reasoned, and maybe changed through debate, conservation, and so on. What they are reacting to is public choice theory, whose proponents see political decisions as the result only of rational, conscious decision-making, as if democracy was merely a market subject to the forces of supply and demand. For these folks, preferences about the state of the (natural) world are values, and they are best expressed through market-like arenas.

The vision of democracy in public choice theory is rather anemic, but what is the vision of democracy in social choice theory? I'm not sure Costanza et al., at least in 1997's Nature's Services, made it out to be much different than what we've currently got. If "society" decides a carbon tax is needed, so be it and make it so through institutions. These institutions may range from to local public trusts or watershed districts, to - and perhaps more likely (in Costanza's reasoning) for something like carbon - Congress. But it should take only a second for even the most casual reader to think, well, how is that going to work out? When was the last time Congress got anything substantive done?

Don't get me wrong, I'm for more deliberative discussions. Democracy can mean a lot of things, and if it means something like direct democracy, where relevant solidarities can set the terms of the discussion, rather than deliberating a pre-defined or even pre-determined point, I'm for it. And Costanza (with Farley 2010) has done a lot of work imagining the role of institutions in ecosystem services provision. At the least, I'm for it since it would mean that decision-makers recognize environmental values that are articulated outside of what we buy and sell. But what this conversation about ecosystem services democracy overlooks is the underlying question of, as Norgaard was getting at, who wins and loses from

And so a related discussion revolves around the question of whether justice is merely a matter of distribution. Is it a just outcome when everyone receives a similar amount of compensation for a similar amount of, say, ecosystem services provision? It was for this guy called Rawls, who asked us to imagine, under a "veil of ignorance" as if we hadn't been born yet, how we would like wealth in the world to be distributed. Sen took this idea one step further and argued that there is a procedural basis to justice as well. Essentially, this is the idea of equal opportunity, or as Sen puts it, "capability". This might mean equal capability to access employment, but in this case it would mean equal capability of participating in conversations about the use and maintenance of ecosystem services.

Tim Forsyth recently extended Sen's (and Rawl's) ideas about justice to climate change. He calls for conceptualizing climate justice as an open and procedural act that is defined by a more inclusive determining of climate risks, as opposed to merely a matter of getting the distribution of benefits (and risks or harms) right. He tries to reframe Sen's point as not just about equal opportunity or "capability" in defining the problem. He writes, "Climate change policy is not simply allocating solutions to melting ice. And an inclusive process is not just diversifying discussion of how to do this." (3) But I'm not sure he gets out of the trap of "just diversifying discussion", as I'm still left wondering, if we include more capable voices, don't we just get cacophony? And is it right to include more voices in, say, the use of local flood prevention services in Africa?

In other words, these authors are unhelpful when it comes to making the analytical distinction, whose voices? But more importantly, to what extent do we actually need to continue to discuss the issue at hand? We know services globally face continued threats, but can a diverse discussion help us talk our way out of it?

Upcoming:  I'll dig more into this question of justice, because has I hinted at in the end, it has a really key scalar component - where do decisions get made? If ecosystem services are embedded in some spatial extent of society and ecology, should decisions about their provision be contextual as well?

I'll also talk more about this idea of value. Answering why and how ecosystem services are ecologically and socially valuable is of course de rigeur, if not by definition, but to what degree do services' values rely on their context? To whom do they become valuable? And more philosophically - what is this value thing I'm talking about anyway?

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