Cultural ecosystem services. Some post ESP-LAC conference reflections

Last week was intense. I chaired the ESP-LAC conference in La Serena, from 6 to 10 November. It was a bilingual conference for the first time. I had the honour to count on my side with the Vice-rector Jiri Skladanka and the Dean of my faculty Jiri Schneider, indeed such distinguished support. I also had a team of 9 students from Mendel University. In addition, with the excellent work done by the ESP secretariat, we ensured a high-quality conference, as it has been the seal of ESP conferences for so many years. An extra challenge this year was the bilingual format.

Up from let to right: Paulina Pečková, Terezie Kadlčková, Jiri Skladanka, Martina Petrová, Luis Inostroza and Jiri Schneider. Down from left to right: Karel Šana, Petra Sadílková, Denisa Duchoňová, Maressa Crisostomo Peregrina and Michelle Puškárová.

I was impressed by the massive presence of females, both colleagues and students. I hope this trend will be kept in time, as we urgently need to reach a better gender balance in academia. It is fundamental to encourage young female researchers in the early stages. I hope that the conference contributed a bit in that direction.

One of the most exciting things personally was the opportunity to sustain insightful discussions all over the week with colleagues from around the world, some of whom I have known for a long time. I was particularly interested in aspects related to the conceptualization of ecosystem services (ES), that are always catching my attention. I can’t avoid jumping into such deep waters to dive to the core of what I learned from my mentors over the years, many times by a word of mouth rather than a published idea in a paper. There are particularly 2 interesting aspects that permanently pop back, defying the boundary object definitions of ES. One is the coproduction of services. The other one is the so-called immateriality. Both are particularly relevant in the context of cultural ES. The coproduction is often misunderstood. This is in part due to the weak conceptualization of the cascade model, which separates in a linear manner processes, functions, services and benefits. This produces a rather static role of humans within ecosystems, humans passively receive the benefits almost without interaction. The lack of co-production understanding is also a side effect of the lack of understanding of what ES science is at the end of the day. It is important to remark that, while we do have several different definitions of ES, and we need them all, the common ground is what I’ve come to call “The mission of ES science”: to identify, highlight and quantify the -many times invisible – contributions of ecosystems to our well-being. As human interactions with nature occur in a highly entangled manner, having in mind the mission helps to keep the North always to the objective, which is not to account (again) the human role or contribution but rather to split, to make the necessary analytical distinction regarding the side of the natural processes and capital, clean of human agency as possible, in that entangled phenomenon that we call cultural ES. For instance, jogging is an ES depending on the context, because it is necessary to account for the elasticity of such activity. What does that mean? Not all jogging activities count as cultural ES, because there is a part of joggers that are inelastic to the environmental conditions on which they run. Imagine New York City joggers. Some will remain running even if Central Park is not there anymore. Those are inelastic, and ungagged with environmental conditions, and therefore, that segment cannot count as an ES. On the contrary, all others who enrol in jogging because of the presence of the Central Park, those who won’t do it if the Central Park disappears, can be counted as cultural ES. Here is where we have the contribution of ES to human well-being, while “co-producing joggers” because of the particular characteristics of green infrastructure in this example. When I give this example, some colleagues complain that it is too complicated to do it. It is certainly easier to just make some surveys, etc. and account for all activities we see as ES, whether inelastic or not. However, the risk of such practices is that, while deviating from the mission of ES science, they can eventually produce a distorted accountability and a suspicious scientific approach, especially under the scrutiny of disciplines outside ES science. Even lack of credibility or double counting. Finally, who said that science must be necessarily easy, that’s a statement that promotes a highly incorrect message about how scientific knowledge is produced. Science must be as complicated as needed to reach a better understanding of reality. Depending on the context that might require straightforward approaches based on qualitative research or highly advanced mathematics. However, simplistic approaches and shortcuts that lack conceptual robustness are damaging our scientific production, rather than contributing to better a understanding of reality.

The panel discussion for the closing plenary: Joachim Spangenberg, Albaluz Ramos Franco, Maria Perevochtchikova, Sylwia Kulczyk and Laura Nahuelhual. Bob Costanza online.

The second aspect, the so-called immateriality of cultural ES makes me highly uncomfortable. Not only because of my materialistic approach to scientific work. Indeed, I profess a philosophy where nothing in this universe is immaterial as such. Under this perspective, claims of immateriality in the context of scientific production do not contribute to any better understanding of the complexities found in cultural ES research. Instead, I prefer to think that we, natural scientists, lack the necessary tools and methods to address cultural ES in a context where the weight of human co-production is higher than in the other ES classes. Let’s take the example of spirituality or aesthetic appreciation, two classical cultural ES claimed as immaterial. Both are feelings and ideas experienced by our human bodies due to the perception of an idiosyncratic biophysical structure, let’s say a tree. In the case of feelings, they are a sequence of biochemical reactions in our body that both, trigger and are triggered in a loop by electromagnetic interactions of our neurons in the brain. Both material reactions are triggered by the tree and are, using the available science of the XXI century, not only detectable and measurable but even mappable in the body and the brain. This might sound like a highly sophisticated way to measure cultural ES, but as in the previous case, no one said that this research must be easy or soft just because it is cultural. Furthermore, my point here is not about the complexity of the measurement but rather the lack of ground for immateriality claims. It seems to be that such immaterial claims are inherited from older philosophical propositions and scientific frameworks dating back to the Enlightenment, that in the XXI century are simply obsolete.

I had two other interesting points of discussion, these two more operational. The first one was related to the example of ES provided by a particular species. Indeed, even if is does not seem to be incorrect, this is certainly not the adequate manner to account for ES. On the contrary, it is fundamental to delimit the ecosystem under scrutiny, and to have the necessary boundary systems to perform sound accountability. This is of course grounded in systems ecology, where to understand the ecosystem “one first draw the model and then write the equations” (Odum, personal communication to Leon Braat). Within this ecosystem carefully delimited, is possible to identify and account for the relevant interactions that can be then described as ES delivered by individual species if is the case. That’s the operational way to do it within the framework of systems ecology. On the contrary, if the focus is placed on a particular species, as important as they might seem to be, rather than on an ecosystem, manifold accountability and operational problems might arise, just because it violates the methods of systems ecology. The ES framework is, in simple words, not prepared to operate under the lens of single-species analysis. The framework has to be placed on ecosystems, to account for the interactions (matter/energy) within the system.

Energy diagrams of 2 entangled ecosystems. Boundaries are fundamental to account for energy/matter flows and interactions. Source: Inostroza 2018.

The last very interesting discussion we had was concerned with understanding eating fish in a boat restaurant as cultural ES. The question here is about the origin of the fish. Does it matter if the fish comes from elsewhere and not from the very lake where the restaurant is located? Here it is important to remember that ES are, always, context-specific. If the mission is to highlight the hidden contribution of nature to human well-being, in a context-specific manner, fishes from elsewhere cannot do it in a cultural sense. Maybe in a provisioning way, if we account for service-providing and demanding areas, or material inflows/outflows in a systems ecology manner. But in a sense of a cultural service that arises due to the interaction of humans with locally determined (delimited) ecosystems, certainly not. Again, under a systems ecology mindset, such material inputs (fishes coming from elsewhere) can be accounted as external material flow and measured as such, but lacking any traces of cultural services, because there is no regulatory mechanism within the ecosystem boundary and the extractive practices, etc. The context specificity of cultural ES is undeniable and every time we face inputs from external sources, the cultural side has to be put into scrutiny.

These discussions are relevant if we want to improve cultural ES research. Not only adequate conceptualizations are needed, but mostly, conceptualizations that allow adequate, hopefully, accurate enough quantifications of the hidden contribution of ecosystems to our well-being. I have fully enjoyed these discussions with my dear colleagues at the conference, and I hope not to wait too long to continue these exchanges somewhere in the world.

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