What happens at the end of a system? The American Chestnut used to be one out of every three trees in eastern hardwood forests; now there are a few blighted remnants, a few resistant individuals hiding in the far corners of what few forests remain uncut. The system has moved on, to a sparser, less self-sufficient balance. But what happens when the system can’t adapt? What does it even look like to us, human beings who struggle to think in systems and who shift our baselines faster than natural systems move?
When the United States established the first national forest at Yellowstone in 1891, the conservation of land for recreation was nearly incidental. Instead, the primary motivation was to protect game, water, and timber resources. They weren’t even called “National Forests” at first—Yellowstone started out as a “Timber and Land Reserve” and graduated through “Forest Reserve” in 1902 before arriving at “National Forest” in 1907.
The general public now associate National Forests with recreation, but the reality is that many of our policies still treat National Forests as reserves of resources—not for conservation’s sake, but for ongoing exploitation. I find it a little worrisome that our largest national protection of wilderness does so out of economic self-interest instead of intrinsic value. A part of me wants to say it doesn’t matter if the end result is the same—but the more I think about it, the less I believe that.
When we think about our wilderness as an economic resource instead of a social resource, the way we manage it changes. It leads us to assume that access to wild places is a peripheral privilege, and like so many privileges, it is given mostly to those who can afford it.
At one point some years ago, I stood on one edge of the Gobi desert and looked out into a vast place mostly ignored, not because it is hard to reach but because it is wide, and dull, and hostile. I found that incredibly alluring; I was seized at the time by an urge to start walking into the dunes and just go, as far as I possibly could.
Of course, I didn’t—the feeling was heady enough. But that, to me, was the feeling of wilderness: a place that doesn’t need you, doesn’t want you, and will scarcely notice your passing.
The relationship between people and wilderness continually pulls me in two directions. On the one hand, I love wild places and want to experience them as fully as I can. On the other, there is something about wilderness that shies away from the presence of people; the more people there are, and the more easily they can get there, the less wild a place becomes.
I find it repeatedly baffling that human beings can being so short-sightedly human-centric. Yes, I know we have little ape brains evolved to think about little ape things, but we are also, arguably, the smartest animals on this planet. Despite that we seem intent on devaluing the distinction by behaving as though we are the only animals on this plant.
Now, a great deal has been written about conservation and how it makes a huge difference to our survival as a species. Likewise a great deal has been written about how the only effective way to conserve things is to appeal to our own self-interest. Finally it has been argued that it doesn’t matter what we do to the ecosystem, because we will just adapt and find new ways to go on as we always have. Leaving those debatable assertions unchallenged for the time being, I want to ask the question, “what does it look like from a different perspective?” This is a question I find repeatedly illuminating in myriad circumstances. Thus, if I were some other creature on this planet, what would I encounter?
As one of a select few, such as deer, pigeons, crows, or rats, I would find that while my evolved niche was now more or less absent, the detritus of humanity was rife with new niches for me to occupy. In my own unthinking way, I would go happily onward multiplying and expanding my territory and enjoying a very human way of life.
If I were just about anything else, though, I would have a very different experience.
If I were a migratory bird, I would find that the places I migrate are torn up and remade, from my perspective, overnight. It would be the equivalent of a human being going on vacation and returning to find their house, and all their neighbors’ houses, leveled and replaced with a 50-acre parking lot. And yet, the users of the parking lot would see no reason why I couldn’t go on living how I did before, just absent my house.
If I were a whale, perhaps, I would find that the oceans are growing increasingly crowded and noisy. I would live a long time, so I would remember just a few decades ago when I could talk to friends and family across long distances. Lately I would be more and more frustrated by an ever-loudening drone. I would feel like someone had started a perpetual rock concert in my home, and yet they expected me to go on living and communicating with my friends just as before.
If I were a wolf, I would probably already be dead. I might be dead because a farmer shot me, or because a car hit me, or because the government put a bounty on my pelt. I might be dead because some people tried to bring me back, but didn’t warn me that I would be eagerly killed if I strayed across the invisible line between Yellowstone National Park and The Rest of the World.
If I were any small mammal, I would find that someone had set up Indiana-Jones-Style speeding blades of death between me and several of the usual places I wanted to go. I would run the gauntlets daily, breathlessly, and with limited hope of survival. My average lifespan would have dropped because I am not very good at outrunning cars.
Human beings tend toward a human-centric worldview, and within that view we have a great fear of extinction. In our myths and cultures and stories we have the idea of an Apocalypse, where Famine and War and Pestilence and Death ride down upon us in fury to destroy us. But thinking about the world from the perspective of everyone else, I think we have it wrong—the Apocalypse isn’t coming for us; it’s coming for everything else trying to share this planet with us.
We are the horsemen, but we’re not riding out of fury. We’re not even riding out fear, or out of self-righteousness. I’m afraid we’re riding out of the worst thing I can think of: total indifference.
For some years now, some very smart people have been inventing ways to fit the processes of our global and local ecosystems into the processes of our global and local economies. The consensus product of this work has been the concept of “ecosystem services,” which are all the things we, as human beings, get out of an intact ecosystem.
Ecosystem services make a lot of sense compared to the other options. All the things we don’t consider in our economic calculations, all the externalities, start to become numbers that can fit into the schema. You might, for example, consider the cost savings of carbon capture associated with an intact forest. You might consider the damage averted by floodwater buffers provided by swamps and wetlands. You might count up the dollar value of a riparian buffer in topsoil retained and erosion prevented.
This is a major improvement, because traditionally, there have been only three ways to value something natural in an economic calculation, and only one of those has any real significance when it comes to conservation.
The main way we accommodate nature in our economic calculations is the most basic: resource exploitation. In fact, the majority of physical value in our economy comes from deconstructing natural systems and using their component parts to fuel human systems. Unfortunately, this mode makes no allowance for the value of the system, and only values the parts by how completely we can repurpose them. The only value in a standing old growth tree, by this measure, is the dollar value of its board feet.
The second way to measure ecosystems in our economy is by offsetting damage, and this is really an uneasy tug-of-war between environmental and economic interests. In this method, you can destroy a wetland if you create another, “equivalent” wetland somewhere along the way. This is, unfortunately, still used and never honestly applied. The replacement wetlands are often biological deserts with only a few plant species, and do not even come close to duplicating the diversity and function of the original. Another version of this approach is even worse: to preserve one wetland elsewhere as an excuse to destroy one, which is a 50% loss by any measure. The crux of it lies in interpreting the concept of “equivalency,” something for which there has rarely been a clear guide. By incorporating ecosystem services, though, there are specific measures one could use to lay out what would be expected in an “equivalent” wetland. Even so, this is not ideal—an honestly equivalent wetland would be prohibitively expensive, so any business creating one is highly motivated to cut corners.
The third way our economy values ecology is through tourism dollars. If something is beautiful enough that some people will pay to see it, conservation starts to have some economic value. But this is a precarious state of affairs—if a place becomes too impacted to be profitable, it could always be sold off and apportioned out for some other use. It also may not consider the whole system involved; we can preserve, for example, a beautiful canyon on the Colorado river, while still diverting so much of the river upstream that the riverbed in the canyon is only fetid mud.
Ecosystem services, I think, are a good step beyond all these approaches. They give us what none of the above can manage, which is a value for intact systems. As humanity covers more and more of the planet, fragments more and more of the wild places, and repurposes even more of our natural systems, the need for a consistent way to value intact systems is urgent.
And yet, I have never been fully comfortable with the idea of ecosystem services, because they seem, to me, to suffer from an irritating conceptual concession. Specifically, they concede that ecosystems are things we can and should value according to how they serve human beings.
Although it is a wonderful step to consider them as whole systems, the service of humans seems to me still too limited a view. What of the things systems do in which we play little or no part? How can we measure the value of a right whale, a spotted salamander, a boreal forest, or an arctic tern? What can these things be said to do for us? But to suggest they have no value is ridiculously anthropocentric.
I don’t want to be the kind of advocate who holds out for a silver bullet when a lead bullet is available. Neither do I want to be a person who settles for the mediocre when the good is possible. And so I think ecosystem services are worthwhile, and necessary, but insufficient.
I think, too, that we need to consider very carefully what it means to value things. Though it is a much bigger conversation, I think there is a serious difference between intrinsic value and dollar value. By necessity, the latter is smaller than the former. Even in human terms alone, the dollar value of a thing does not equal its total value. So, when it comes to conserving what is left of our ecosystems, I think we must not let dollar value take center stage. It has a use, and when it works we should use it, but we must not succumb to the idea that it is enough.