Ecosystems, services and understanding human-environment relations

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Dying date palms
What not to do in Tunisia: Dying date palms

Ecosystem services are not a meaningful framework of interpretation of human-environment relations for the vast majority of people, although the term has gained traction in science and policy. Culturally the concepts which have most meaning are those of nature. And the public does appreciate the benefits of provisioning services, for example the supply of food and clean water, regulating services such as sequestration of carbon to mitigate climate change, and cultural services, including recreation and urban greenspace.

This post is a summary of the National Ecosystem Assessment report, and is taken from a RuSource briefing to provide concise information on current farming and rural issues produced by Alan Spedding in association with the Arthur Rank Centre. These briefings are circulated weekly by email and previous briefings can be accessed on the Arthur Rank Centre website. If you would like to be put on the list for free regular briefings please contact alan.spedding -at- btopenworld.com


Summary

Ecosystem services are not a meaningful framework of interpretation of human-environment relations for the vast majority of people, although the term has gained traction in science and policy. Culturally the concepts which have most meaning are those of nature. And the public does appreciate the benefits of provisioning services, for example the supply of food and clean water, regulating services such as sequestration of carbon to mitigate climate change, and cultural services, including recreation and urban greenspace.


This paper summarises the fifth of the key questions addressed by the National Ecosystem Assessment, ‘What is the current public understanding of ecosystem services and the benefits they provide?’ It is taken from the ‘Synthesis of Key Findings’ which can be accessed at http://uknea.unep-wcmc.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=wiVYSZoHmBQ%3d&tabid=82

A recent survey suggests that in the UK, ecosystem services is not a meaningful framework of interpretation of human-environment relations for the vast majority of people, although it has gained traction in science policy. Culturally, the concepts which have most meaning are those of nature, place and landscape, because these are the products of cultural communications and practices.

People share a common language and understanding of nature. They described the components of nature as including the sky, seas, hills, mountains, forests, woodlands, rivers, streams, lakes, beaches, and countryside, characterised by the presence of many different species of animals, birds, insects, and fish. They associated nature with greenery, such as leaves, trees, grass, plants and fruit, and fresh air, clean air and cleanliness. They talk about nature as ‘other’ to themselves and not ‘man-made’.

People appreciate the idea of ‘naturalness’, but also showed understanding of human impacts on the natural environment. They recognised associations of natural environment with farming and gardening, leisure experiences in parks and the countryside and also awareness of some of the negative impacts of economic activity on the natural environment such as climate change, and the need for nature conservation.

Current cultural attitudes mean that people tend to perceive these physical settings as distinct from the other places humans occupy, such as the interior of the home, workplaces and shopping malls. Humans need places where we can interact with each other and with nature. These physical settings provide spaces that our current culture sees as important, as highlighted in a recent survey where 88% agreed that spending time outdoors was an important part of their life, and 93% agreed that having green spaces near to where they lived was important. Over 80% of households in the UK have access to a garden.

The places where we spend much of our everyday lives provide informal local green settings, such as footpaths, bridleways, street trees, and roadside hedgerows, and green settings such as ponds, rivers and lakes, and also contain formal local settings designed for certain activities such as recreation in parks, food growing in allotments or retreat and contemplation in cemeteries.

Reed Bed, Herefordshire
A reed bed in Herefordshire

A study has found that ecosystem is more than twice as frequent in academic texts as in government and public texts, with government much more likely to use the phrase ecosystem goods and services. The study finds key adjectives and nouns associated with ecosystem are those indicating habitat type (such as marine, aquatic, forest); adjectives which indicate vulnerability (such as fragile, threatened, endangered, delicate); verbs indicating harm done to ecosystems (such as degrade, disrupt, damage, harm, threaten, upset, suffer); and verbs referring to the protection and restoration of ecosystems (such as conserve, preserve, protect). The word which is used most similarly to ecosystem is habitat. Whilst habitats and ecosystems are likely to be described as degraded, ecosystems are more likely to be described as delicate than habitats, which are more often described as valuable and rare, reflecting the characteristic framing of nature by conservationists.

Even though the public did not relate to the concept of ecosystem services, they do appreciate the benefits that nature provides through provisioning services, such as the production of affordable, safe and nutritious food; regulating services, such as the maintenance of clean air and water, pollination services, and the limitation of climate change; and cultural services, such as meaningful places, recreation and use of urban greenspace.

Gosforth Lake, by Ralph Hedley
Gosforth Lake, by Ralph Hedley

The increasing membership of organisations such as the National Trust, which has increased from 7,000 members in 1944 to 3.5 million today, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has increased from 10,000 in 1960 to over 1 million today and the UK Wildlife Trusts, which have a total membership of 800,000, illustrates an increasing appreciation and awareness of environmental issues. Active participation in a range of nature based and outdoor activities has also grown.

A series of recent Forestry Commission surveys found that a majority of people agreed that ‘trees are good because they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in wood’, ‘that woodlands are places to reduce stress and anxiety’, and ‘that they felt healthier when spending time outdoors in the woodlands’.

Alan Spedding, 12 July 2011


RuSource briefings provide concise information on current farming and rural issues for rural professionals. They are circulated weekly by email and produced by Alan Spedding in association with the Arthur Rank Centre, the national focus for the rural church. Previous briefings can be accessed on the Arthur Rank Centre website at http://www.arthurrankcentre.org.uk/projects/rusource_briefings/index.html
RuSource is a voluntary project partly supported by donations (including from the Annals of Botany not-for-profit company) and sponsorship.

© Alan Spedding 2011. This briefing may be reproduced or transmitted in its entirety free of charge. Where extracts are used, their source must be acknowledged. RuSource briefings may not be reproduced in any publication or offered for sale without the prior permission of the copyright holder.

If you would like to be put on the list for free regular briefings or have any other queries about the service contact alan.spedding -at- btopenworld.com .


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