Global public goods and nature services

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Bedřich Moldan

By introducing agriculture ten to twenty thousand years ago, man set himself apart from nature radically and separated from it. It was then that people began to create their own human world. Instead of hunting and gathering food, they began to live on crops they grew (predominantly cereals), meat and other products from the animals they reared. Whilst hunters and gatherers were part of nature, that was no longer true of farmers. Each and every field is an encroachment on intact nature: it occupies the space of a former forest, savannah, or other natural formation. The same applies to pastures and all other areas used as means of production by farmers. With their activity, farmers defied nature in a way, as they conducted their activities to the exclusion of the original ecosystems from the very start. Threats to natural resources and the environment occurred when the farmers mismanaged those resources, causing serious disturbances. Environmental devastation accompanied ancient civilisations and it is now generally concluded that it was the reason for the disappearance of some of these civilisations.

The present situation, however, is fundamentally new. People are affecting their environment on a global scale. That is why Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer (Crutzen et Stoermer, 2000) titled the current period anthropocene. What they implied by this was that humankind has become the decisive force on planet Earth over approximately the last two hundred years (symbolically, the authors put the origins of anthropocene in 1794, when James Watt invented the steam engine). At the onset of anthropocene, Earth had about 800 million inhabitants, of whom only a minor part lived in towns and cities. The urban population increased from about 200 million in 1900 to 2.9 thousand million in 2000, while the number of cities with a population over one million grew from 17 in 1900 to 388 in 2000. Of crucial importance, however, is not only the rapid growth in the Earth’s population but, in the first place, the changing consumption and production patterns combined with the massive power of technology.

The greatest changes, easily observable from outer space, concern the land surface. At the beginning of the period, pastures and fields took up about 12% of the dry land area; it is 37% now, while an entire 50% has been transformed radically by one human activity or another. People use about 40% of the primary biological production of all green plants directly or indirectly, as well as 40–50% of the available sources of freshwater; some of the great rivers are subject to such heavy exploitation that they fail to flow to the sea for several months each year (Hoang Ho). Man affects the climate substantially, above all, by producing greenhouse gases (the atmospheric CO2 and methane concentrations have increased by 40% and 100%, respectively); man has reduced the stratospheric ozone layer massively; and changed the chemical composition of the entire troposphere (such as by long-distance pollutant transmission). The biogeochemical cycles of the principal nutrients have changed: the anthropogenic nitrogen flow is at 150% of the natural flow; it is at 200% and 460% for sulphur and phosphorus, respectively. Heavy metals and artificially produced organic substances have been mobilised; they often have very long life and physiological effects.

The current period of anthropocene has completed the process of gradual human domination of planet Earth. The domination is now nearly total. As Vitousek et al. put it, ‘…it is ever more obvious that we live on a man-controlled planet.’ (Vitousek et al., 1997).

At the same time, this gives us an opportunity to overcome the fundamental dissension, disunion between people and nature, initiated by the appearance of the early farmers. Before them, man was part of the natural world, one of the species competing with others, finding its ecological niche. The situation has reversed: nature has become part of the human world. Planet Earth is a human planet: there is a place and reason for nature, wild and cultivated to any degree, in it but it is essentially only a place that humans have assigned it.

Ecosystem Services

Nature has its place in the human world above all as a service provider. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment project (MEA, 2003) presented a concept of ecosystem services. The concept is shown in the Diagram 1 and Diagram 2.

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Diagram 1: Ecosystem Services and Wellbeing. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005
File:Moldan Change Drivers.jpg
Diagram 2: Driving forces of change. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005

The cardinal contribution was the emphasis on the link between ecosystem services and ecosystem changes and the quality of human life. The link justifies the need for care for the ecosystem services, for the conservation of nature’s services at a sufficient and sustainable grade.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment also examined a wide range of responses with which people react to actual or impending loss of or damage to ecosystem services. It assessed the applicability and effectiveness of various approaches to sustainable use, protection and restoration of ecosystems and their services. Those responses that prove to be successful incorporate ecosystem values in decision-making, inform the decision-makers of the various ecosystem benefits, mainly with respect to local interest, create markets and define property rights, emphasise education and broadening of knowledge, as well as promote investment in improved ecosystem status and services provided.

Global Public Goods

Implicitly, the notion of nature as part of the human world gives rise to a concept which is economic in its essence, regarding nature’s services as goods. Goods are any means which delivers a benefit, satisfies a certain need, as a consequence of its qualities. There is no principal difference between a service provided by nature and a service provided by, say, a public transport operator or water company, or by tangible goods such as a house or a car. More: definitions of public goods.

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Table 1: Typology of public goods, Kaul, Mendoza 2003

Public goods is a special category of goods; they were already recognised by Roman law (‘res publica’) but their modern interpretation derives from the definition by Samuelson (1954): ‘Public goods are collective consumable goods characterised by the fact that their consumption by any individual does not diminish the level of consumption by any other individual.’ They are characterised by non-competitiveness and non-exclusivity of consumption.

The conventional scheme, as shown in Table 1, is in fact a mere illustration of the basic assumption, in which public goods are located only in Quadrant 3, strictly speaking.

However, the notion of public goods has been developing, refined and extended, mostly due to the more detailed treatment of the criteria of exclusivity and competitiveness. The transcendence of the original concept is especially evident in the category of global public goods (a symbolic term to some extent, as in many cases it is more a combination of ‘national’ or ‘regional’ and ‘global’ goods). Kaul and Mendoza present a typology of global public goods based on its degree of ‘publicness’, or to what extent and in what sense the goods are of a public nature (Table 1).

It is obvious that the notion of public goods has seen a considerable shift since the initial narrow concept defined by Samuelson. In particular, the authors reflect on the ongoing globalisation process, which entails a gradual expansion of the public goods sphere at the global level. The process of completion of the anthropocenic human domination of Earth can thus be viewed as parallel to the globalisation process, or rather the two processes must be seen as interrelated and interwoven. The inclusion of nature’s services among public goods, especially at the global level, is legitimate.

Public Goods in the Environmental Area

The inclusion of nature’s services such as the provision of chemicals and energies or the carrying function related to the Earth’s surface area, among public goods may provoke objections in the sense that they are not public but chiefly private goods, as is land or mineral deposits. However, it is appropriate to take the historic view into consideration. Nature’s services, initially freely available – thus public goods – were only privatised in part or fully throughout history, while the property rights have always been more or less clearly defined and limited; but a certain degree of ‘publicness’ has always been preserved (such as the free admission to forests, state ownership of reserved minerals, free access to the sea shore from the sea). As already stated, the situation is gradually changing and the ‘publicness’ of nature’s services – thus their inclusion among global public goods – is gaining importance in the current era of globalisation and full application of the human domination.

Both the general public goods and global public goods categories include services provided by nature, which are shown next to the various types of goods produced by humans. This bears out their fundamental mutual affinity, which assumes a unity between the human and the natural world.

The Limits to the Utilitarian Notion of Nature’s Services

As we have seen, the process of the completion of human domination and inclusion of nature in the human world, which has occurred in the current period of anthropocene, has been accompanied by a utilitarian notion of nature and natural ecosystems as service providers catering to human society. This position is further amplified by the Council of Europe concept, linking nature’s services to human rights. Global public goods provide services in three areas, roughly corresponding to the three categories of human rights (Council of Europe, 2005):

Human rights. These include direct support to human life and health in the broadest sense, including the allowance for aesthetic, spiritual and other experiences.

Civil rights. These are assured, among other things, by a wide variety of nature’s services. A universal example is the ‘right’ to safe water distributed by public mains.

Economic rights. Everyone has the right to be rich, or at least sufficiently sustained economically, which is made possible by general economic activity, greatly dependent on nature’s services.

According to this concept, people have the right to full provision of nature’s services guaranteed simply by being born as humans. This seems to be the culmination of anthropocentric utilitarianism.

However, it has been pointed out earlier that the anthropocenic human domination of planet Earth also means a new unity of the human world and nature, albeit within a world predominantly human. It is predominantly, but not exclusively human, precisely because it includes nature. This also means, however, that nature can no longer be understood as an object of one-sided exploitation and manipulation, but as part of the co-evolution of human culture and civilisation on the one hand, and of ecosystems and other natural systems on the other hand.

The term ‘co-evolution’ means an extension of the purely utilitarian concept as it implies human responsibility not only for nature’s services as such, but also for the state of nature as it is by itself. Above all, this concerns our responsibility for the biological diversity, wealth of natural genes, species and ecosystems. Biological diversity – biodiversity – is undoubtedly an imperative framework and precondition for a great part of ecosystem services, but it also has an intrinsic value in this concept: a value of its own. The wealth of animate nature is tied to the planetary life-supporting systems such as water circulation, soil formation, and oceanic circulation. All these global, or even local, systems have an existence of their own, living and evolving. Man is responsible for their sound evolution, as they are public goods under man’s management.

The recognition of the intrinsic value of nature and its evolution does not mean abandoning the anthropocentric view and its replacement with a biocentric (geocentric, etc.) one, but rather thinking through the consequences of human planetary domination to the end.

Global Public Goods Management

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Recommended Reading

  • Daily, G. C. (1997). Nature´s Services. Island Press, Washington, DC, 392 pp.
  • Kaul, I., Conceicao, P., LeGoulven, K. Mendoza, R. U. (eds.) (2003). Providing Global Public Goods. UNDP, New York, 646 pp.
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2003). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: A Framework for Assessment. Island Press, Washington, DC, 245 pp.,
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC, 137 pp.

References Used

  • Council of Europe (2005). European Water Charter: A New Water Culture, Madrid, 10 pp.
  • Crutzen, P., Stoermer, E. F. (2000). Anthropocene. IGBP Newsletter 41, May 2000.
  • Diamond, J.(2005). Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking, New York, 575 pp.
  • Dietz, F., Ostrom, E., Stern, P. C. (2003). The Struggle to Govern the Commons. Science 302, 1907–1912
  • Hardin, G. (1968). Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162, 1243–1248.
  • Kaul, I., Conceicao, P., LeGoulven, K., Mendoza, R. U. (Eds.) (2003). Providing Global Public Goods. UNDP, New York, 646 pp.
  • Kaul, I., Mendoza, R. U. (2003). Advancing the Concept of Public Goods. In: Kaul, I., et al. (Eds.) (2003): Providing Global Public Goods. UNDP, New York, 646 pp.
  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC, 137 pp.
  • Samuelson, P. (1954). The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure. Review of Economics and Statistics 36, 387-389.
  • Vitousek, P. M., Mooney, H. A., Lubchenco, J., Melillo, J. M. (1997). Human Domination of Earth´s Ecosystems. Science 277, 494499

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