Environmentalism or human well-being? Rejecting a false dichotomy

Following an article RTCC wrote asking whether the climate change movement had meant the death of traditional environmentalism, Johan Kuylenstierna from the Stockholm Environment Institute argues that it does not have to be an either/or argument and that it is time we realised we are all in this together.

By Johan Kuylenstierna

With Rio+20 around the corner, debates are raging worldwide about the meaning of sustainability.

It’s a concept embraced by most people in the abstract, but translating it into practice is so complex and even contentious that delegates drafting the Rio action plan – ‘The Future We Want’ – could not a agree on a text before the conference.

The discord is not just amongst countries; within the developed world, even amongst scientists with a shared understanding of the major threats to our planet – climate change, pollution, ocean degradation, loss of biodiversity – there are fundamental disagreements about the ‘right’ way forward.

Twenty years on from the orginal Earth Summit, how far will Rio+20 go in creating a pathway towards sustainability? (© Michos Tzovaras/UN)

In a recent blogpost, RTCC’s Tierney Smith argued that climate change in particular has inspired a new breed of environmentalism that is remarkably human-centric, focused not on protecting nature, but on renewable energy and other technological solutions.

Traditional environmentalists may feel alienated in this debate – and indeed, there are even worse affronts to their values: GMOs, geoengineering.

It is important to recognize and discuss those differences, but we cannot accept this false dichotomy.

Humans do not exist in a vacuum.

Every aspect of our lives is intertwined with natural systems: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, even the materials used in our most advanced technologies. Our future depends on our ability to maintain these systems, and to restore them where they’ve collapsed.

Military hand out water to people in Dhaka Bangeldesh

We can not deny humans right to basic services; running water, sanitation, and an end to hunger and disease (© Kibae Park/UN)

At the same time, we cannot deny the importance of humans – and our desire to have decent lives: not just basic food and shelter, but also energy, mobility, communications and other goods and services.

This is life as we know it in the global North and for a growing middle class in developing countries, and it’s what most people in the world aspire to – perhaps not an SUV, a home theatre system and an iPad, but roads, electricity, running water, sanitation, and an end to hunger and disease.

Together, these insights expose the folly of trying to pick a side: the environment or mankind.

Assigning value to nature

What we need instead is to recognize the tremendous importance of natural systems to our lives, and then work to protect them not just for the sake of ‘the environment’, but for human well-being.

One useful approach is to talk about ‘ecosystem services’, the term scientists use for all the benefits we get from nature: how water resources replenish themselves, plants and oceans capture carbon, insects pollinate plants, rivers provide habitats for fish and bring nutrients downstream, and coastal wetlands protect us from storm surges.

From this perspective, preserving ecosystem services is not about saving nature from humans – it’s about saving nature for humans (and other living beings).

Economists have actually begun to assign monetary values to many of these services, so in a cost-benefit analysis for, say, protecting a forest, the value of the timber (and perhaps the future cattle-grazing land) can be offset by the value of the carbon sink, the diverse species living in the forest, and even the livelihoods that people derive from that forest.

But shouldn’t our love and respect for nature be enough?

A helpful tool is to speak of ecosystem services such as that of insects to pollinate plants (© theseanster93/Creative Commons)

Perhaps, but it seldom is. The United Nations’ latest Global Environmental Outlook (GEO5) finds that of 90 goals set by world leaders, only four show progress.

Between 2000 and 2010, the report shows, the world lost over 130 million hectares of forest. Natural habitats are ever more fragmented: 80% of the remaining pieces of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest are now smaller than 50 hectares; almost 20% of vertebrate species are in danger of extinction, as are numerous plants used in traditional medicine.

Recognizing the value of ecosystem services helps us see the link between human self-interest and environmentalism.

It can help us better manage our water resources, to ensure that irrigation upstream, for example, isn’t at the expense of people who depend on floodplains, wetlands and fish downstream.

And it can help us make better choices about climate change mitigation, steering us away from ‘solutions’ that destroy forests, or threaten to disrupt rainfall for the sake of cooling the planet.

It doesn’t have to be either/or?

Valuing ecosystem services also changes the North-South dynamic in international negotiations.

From our comfortable perches in the North, it is easy to say that China, India, and all developing nations should hold down their carbon emissions, and Brazil and all others with virgin forests should protect them, and destructive mining operations should not be permitted.

These are all legitimate concerns, but for the people living in poverty in these countries – many without potable water, electricity or health care – they sound a lot like ‘Please stay poor, for the environment’s sake.’

What if we didn’t treat it as either/or? If we truly value virgin forests, we should be willing to pay to preserve them – directly and through mechanisms such as climate finance. That money can then support alternate economic paths that protect ecosystems and reduce poverty.

Understanding the value of ecosystems help link the human with the environment, such as offering finance to communities to protect forests

If developing-country leaders also recognize the value of ecosystem services to their own people, they’ll be likelier to embrace opportunities to protect them: because they want clean air, clean water, fertile land, and maybe ecotourism revenue.

This is the heart of sustainability – realizing that we’re all in this together, and choosing to pursue the common good.

It’s not too late for the Rio+20 talks to do this. We’ll be there, rooting for our future.

Johan Kuylenstierna is executive director of the Stockholm Environment Institute.

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