Culture is the key to Sustainability?

One of the big questions that we try to address in our research in the SES – LINK group is the role that culture plays in emergent SES phenomena (such as traps or regime shifts).

Last week at the Stockholm Resilience Centre we had a great seminar on the role of culture in sustainable development. Thomas Elmqvist (SRC), Kai Chan (UBC), Erik Gomez- Baggethun (NINA and UAB), and Maria Tengö (SRC) gave excellent presentations giving an overview of culture in the Millennium Ecosystem Services Assessment, how and whether it can transform the sustainability discourse and how and when to attribute value to ES. I’ll focus mainly on the transformation of the sustainability discourse.

Thomas Elmqvist opened the discussion with the provocative statement claiming that the Millennium Ecosystem Service Assessment (MA) created a damaging typology in which Culture was put in the ‘left-overs’ box rather than an integral part of the ES framework.

Kai Chan from the University of British Columbia presented his perspectives on whether “Cultural Ecosystem Services are the keys to Sustainability?”

Ecosystem Services as a concept has risen massively in popularity since the MA and has been instrumental in bringing the ecological back to the economic dimensions of life – but Chan’s view was that the concept has not changed the fundamental discourse on sustainability. He pointed out that culture in the MA figure has only very weak links to other services, “cultural services are everywhere but they are nowhere!” Moreover, cultural services are usually relegated to mostly aesthetic and recreational values.


The culturality of ES

Khan encouraged to shift thinking away from Cultural ES and rather think about the culturality of ES. Cultural values are the layers of meaning through which all ES and wellbeing are interpreted and valued. Bundles of Ecosystem Services for example should interpreted as by individuals, we experience things simultaneously, not separately.

Relational Values

Cultural ES are more than just Natural Capital (which tends to draw a 1 to 1 relationship between ES and human values). Rather cultural ES mediates experiences and interest which leads to capabilities (and identities and norms) and therefore ultimately well-being.

In a paper in press (PNAS), Chan and colleagues present the idea that relational values are the keys to sustainability, via stewardship.Sustainability is not only about maintaining capital, but more about relations that maintains them. 

I was left with a few questions:

Given the recognition that ES divorces concepts that are initially whole and then tries to stitch them back together in artificial ways (like bundles) when is it appropriate and helpful to use ES as a concept? When not? Personally for me, the relational ontology is fundamentally different from the one where ES comes from. I very much respect and admire the work that Chan and colleagues have done, particularly with indigenous peoples. I was interested to know how Chan reconciles this apparent disconnect of relational ontologies behind many indigenous worldviews with that of ES that seems to break apart that relational foundation. He gave a great answer, that they found as long as the more one directional world view (aka ES) is a part of the holistic world view, the indigenous communities they work with tend to accept this (check out some of their publications here)