Quantifying the intangible

The problem with subtleties is that most people miss them.

Can we accurately measure and place an economic value on ecosystem services, or Nature’s contributions to people? Will it ever be possible for mechanisms like carbon taxing or the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD), actually represent the true value of these contributions in the balance of economic transactions and policy decisions?

Our relationship to Nature plays throughout our human history as a dramatic struggle between contrasting forces. Our very concept of what Nature is, and our place in it, is dynamic and constantly shifting within this narrative, a process that seems to be largely driven by our understanding of science and our relentless advancements in technology, exploration and discovery.

We are now far removed from the concept of the natural world as some omnipresent and overpowering force that was prevalent during much of our history, when humans lived much more exposed, dependent and vulnerable to the immediate surroundings. As depicted in the paintings of the Dutch masters of the XVII century, where we see tiny human figures cowering under a dark and wild canopy of menacing forest, humans were but a small part of a much larger, often menacing and always wild environment.

Nature has gone from being an almost omnipotent force to be reckoned with, cut back and tamed, and has gradually become a fragile and somewhat distant web of delicately balanced life systems which suddenly need protection from our voracious needs. Nature is no longer The World, but a quaint place we visit or view from afar, a non functional space where we can go to enjoy serenity and reconnect with something we are not quite sure of anymore.

But as can still be seen among in Indigenous communities, during the bulk of human existence on our planet the place and relationship of humans to the natural environment made up the entirety of our context, our narrative, and ourselves. On this timeline, the story of modern society can be interpreted as a shift or a tearing away of the human animal from the ecosystem that created it.

The Conquer of Nature is in many ways a triumph of the human imagination, an impossible dream of godliness that our species has painstakingly made manifest through constant innovation and struggle, beginning with the harnessing of basic tools and the use of fire, to the terrifying leading edges of synthetic biology and nuclear fusion. We have in some ways outgrown or at least overpowered our natural context, and are staring into the dawn of a post-natural era.

The great tragedy of this exhilarating story of human conquest is that even as we seem to be achieving the dominance and power over Nature that our ancestors would dream about as they lay in damp caverns wrapped in their hard won bear furs, we perceive that in our quest for power also lies our doom as a species. Our science and our senses tell us that this path is unsustainable, that we cannot keep going in the direction we are going at the speed we are going without falling off the edge, that we have missed an essential thing and we are at risk of loosing it forever.

It would seem that the trajectories of industry, science, economy, and modern human society are on a collision course with the physical and biological reality of our planet. Experts have been sounding the alarm for decades now about climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution and depletion of resources, and we seem unable to reconcile these with the constant needs, pressure and momentum of our Great Human Experiment.

What did we miss? We measured, cut open, observed, weighed, qualified and quantified all the factors we could find. We dissected Nature from the whale to the atom, harnessed its powers and took what we needed. Even now, we hope against hope that a technological innovation will provide a deus ex machina, some kind of eucatasrophe that will remove acidity and plastic from the oceans, regulate global temperature, harness carbon and regenerate forest habitats and feed the world.

There is definitely strong precedent that supports a faith in human ingenuity and innovation. Time and again our tenacity, audacity and genius have overcome obstacles to open new horizons. The case for hope is undoubtedly strong, as are the resilience and flexibility of our collective imagination. This has consistently proven to be the case.

But as our current nagging ecological malaise seems to be trying to tell us, in order to turn this corner and save our planet from ourselves we need to shift the narrative. As our awareness that our planet is a living web of subtle biological relationships has grown, so has a desire to find harmony, integration, and holistic understanding. We must find the missing, intangible and hitherto unmeasurable factors that can bring us the balance and well being we yearn for, that reintegration to Nature we dream about, that indeed we require in order to survive. For all our dreams and aspirations, we need to understand we are a part of – and not apart from – the ecosystems we have evolved in. We tend not to see the forest for the trees, because we are too busy cutting them down to stop and think about it.

The notion that we must take into account the real value of Nature and it’s contributions to humans in order to bring about the necessary changes to keep our planet alive is important. Are we capable of revisiting the narrative of our human experience to include the things we’ve missed? Can we find our place in Nature again, and realize that all we are and ever have been is also a part of Nature?

Published by ecosocialdesign

I am a graduate of Gaia University's action learning program where I developed a number of experimental techniques on rooftop gardening and the use of bamboo in the construction of human powered machines. I later focused on ways to use action learning to bring higher education recognition to Indigenous holders of traditional knowledge. I currently collaborate with my family in Chiapas, Mexico to promote agroecology and alternative markets with Indigenous communities there. My interest is in the burgeoning field of integrative eco-social design, specifically as applicable to landscape and habitat restoration. I am interested in the nexus between productive human activity and biodiversity conservation as I believe there can be no sustainable conservation that does not directly address and resolve the needs of human populations. Other areas of interest for me include traditional Indigenous knowledge around habitat management and food production. I am specifically interest in creating business opportunities for landscape and forest restoration specialists to engage with industry and community stakeholders in long term management contracts, as I believe this will become an essential part of all projects from their inception and design moving forward. This blog is a repository for my ideas on conservation and human productivity in the post-natural age.

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