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People for Ecosystem Services: Rethinking market solutions for sustainable farming practice

I have just been reading Jay Griffith’s latest book ‘Kith’, in which she urges us not to lose sight of our relationship with nature and our connectedness with the earth:

“Land can make someone who they are, can create their psyche, giving them fragments of themselves… shatter the relation to the land and you can shatter personalities”

Common Cause for Nature (CCfN) brings the same plea centre stage as a means to guide the conservation sector in their task of championing, protecting and restoring the environment that is our home. Demonstrating the importance of nurturing intrinsic values, which foster care for others of every species, ‘Common Cause…’ provides an important caution against the ever increasing reliance we now place in economic value and market solutions. Having conducted research on the development of ‘Payments for Ecosystem Services’ (PES) over the last few years, I welcome their advice. Their report shows that many in the sector have turned to economic valuation as a pragmatic solution, and in my own work I have heard a similar story. But CCfN presents a compelling case to think beyond this apparent rationale. Some of the most striking parallel insights I have encountered have come from engaging with farmers and land-owners about the potential for PES. Their reactions have surprised me, because they have clearly evidenced the need to look beyond the assumed power of financial incentives. As PIRC outline in their report, people have a range of motivations and values which we need to work with. And when we only focus on economic drivers (often associated with extrinsic values), we might unwittingly exacerbate some more negative attributes (such as anti-social and anti-environmental attitudes).

In my own work, I have argued that we need to gain a clearer sense of non-economic priorities and look beyond the ‘neoliberal subject’ that we are all too easily assumed to be.1 When we think about the other ways that we can organise people and systems, it becomes obvious that choosing a system of market governance boils down to a basic lack of trust in people. This is because such a move is premised on a belief and appeal to peoples’ selfish instincts: which we know from the values research is only likely to reinforce these motivations. If instead, we acknowledged and affirmed the forms of co-operative working, mutual aid and communal care that people already practice, we would move away from the need for governance to mediate individual priorities, and strengthen the more collective systems that already exist.

In addition, my work has shown that many farmers are committed to more intrinsic concerns such as the longer term and the viability of their enterprise for future generations. This is an important priority that should be nurtured as a key standpoint in achieving sustainability, rather than marginalised (and in fact dis-incentivised) by encouraging them to focus on short-term financial priorities. Similarly, their acknowledgement of food production as an interconnected process, with a range of environmental outcomes, is an understanding that needs to be reinforced rather than undermined by a focus on the different marketable commodities available.2 Overall, my findings are clearly aligned with the Common Cause for Nature report; showing that the impetus of market solutions is both narrow-minded and counter-productive in many ways. The emphasis on a neoliberal model of behaviour can be seen to reinforce many of the attributes that have created the environmental problems PES are now setting out to resolve. If we are to use the ecosystem service discourse at all, as a means to acknowledge the value of environmental externalities, we need to do it in a way that does not pretend that markets can achieve successful governance on their own.

This is a guest post from Dr. Sophie Wynne-Jones, Research Associate at Wales Rural Observatory, who has carried out a number of pieces of research around farming in Wales and Payments for Ecosystem Services. See p90 of the full Common Cause for Nature report for more about values and ecosystem services.
  1. [1] Wynne-Jones, S. (forthcoming) ‘Reading for Difference’ with Payments for Ecosystem Services in Wales. Part of Special Issue on ‘Contesting Governance Hegemonies: A Multi-Disciplinary, Cross-National Perspective’. Journal of Critical Policy Studies
  2. [2] Wynne-Jones, S. (2013) Ecosystem Service Delivery in Wales: Investigating Farmers Willingness to Participate. Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning.
GuestPeople for Ecosystem Services: Rethinking market solutions for sustainable farming practice