Ecosystem Services

Interview with Geoffrey Bowker

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Video transcript: "One of the core arguments driving the environmental debate in the United States is what's called ecosystem services. What has this ecosystem done for me lately, what's this species done for me. If I take out this species of fish and replace it with a wet land which can take other species, is that a good trade off? This idea that we need to move the ecology into the economy — both from the same word, by the way, ecos, the Greek word for the household, economy being about the human use of resources and ecology about the natural use of resources - this move, which is very attractive because it's a kind of argument that you can get across to policy makers fairly easily, again traps us in the wrong kind of thinking about how we should be addressing problems. I don't know what good a given species is going to be, like a species of corn, that might've been grown somewhere in Peru. I don't know if that's going to be useful a hundred years from now, five hundred years from now somewhere else. There is absolutely no way of telling which species are going to be "valuable" and which are "non-valuable" over time. The more we get sucked into that kind of argument, the more we get sucked into the politics of it's all down to the economy, it's all down to efficiency and it's all down to the economy.

That kind of false consciousness, again is one that prevents us from seeing the world itself as interconnected, inter-knit in one way or another. We all know the service sector in the American economy: underpaid, non-union labor - they just provide the services for the rest of us. This whole idea of ecosystem services puts the ecosystem into that kind of a position within our emergent economy. It seems to be taking it seriously, by putting a monetary value on it, but it's doing precisely the inverse - it's not taking life seriously enough. Ecosystem services they have this strange equation and it's largely based on what is your ecosystem doing for me now. We've tried to pull away from this kind of argument; it's not all about now, it's not all about the present, it's not trying to keep the world as it is just now at present, it's not trying to preserve the species, it's not trying to preserve the climate as it is. This idea, this frozen present as being that which we should be trying to preserve is really weird. We get away from the frozen present, then we get into a whole different calculus with respect to ecosystem services. Infinity started peering all over the place. One I love is - if you take all the ants of the face of the Earth simultaneously right now, we would all be dead within a week or ten days, it's a figure I saw a while back.

So, ants have infinite value. If we take sea vegetables, for example at the time, which used to be called seaweed before we got politically correct about them, seaweed itself can be seen as being... Over time, if we take the expanse of time sufficiently, make it a sufficiently large expanse of time and we pay sufficient attention to the imbrication - the way in which species interact with each other, play with each other, build on each other, all of the time the way in which species terraform the Earth - you just can't tell. You're just going to run into infinities all of the time. The only way that you can create the concept of ecosystem services, paradoxically, is to keep it fixed in the present and in a very short term, which is precisely the kind of thinking we don't need."

Other interviews with Geoffrey Bowker

Related tags: Commons, Biodiversity Loss, Natural Capital, Systems, Theory,