This article was published at Post Growth Institute in november 2013.
In September, the former party leader of the largest party in Sweden, the Social Democrats, made a proposition to the Swedish Parliament. He suggested that the concept of “customer” shouldn’t be applicable in tax-supported sectors, such as health care and education, in Sweden. He commented:
The change from citizen to customer is in my opinion the greatest political shift that has occurred over the past twenty years. … there is an existential difference between being a citizen in a society, and being reduced to a customer on a market. The customer has only one obligation – to pay. … Purchasing power is central. Citizens, however, have the same rights, regardless of how much they earn. The core of democracy is not in any way economical. On the contrary, it is based on values, not purchasing power. To regard citizens as customers creates further distance between the individual and society.
The core of democracy is based on values, and the shift from “citizen” to “customer” or consumer has, in itself, a large impact on our values. Consumer is what might be called a frame that unconsciously evokes certain values and references, and as cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues, frames we are repeatedly confronted with become our ‘common sense’ and difficult to reason beyond. The creeping dominance of particular frames – such as notion of “customer” – can shift the ideologies of entire populations.
The consumer frame is known to trigger values around wealth, achievement and social status. These so-called extrinsic values make us behave in a way not very beneficial in a society. When we think about ourselves as consumers rather than citizens, we tend to be more competitive and less trusting. Extrinsic values are also associated with a lower sense of well-being, higher levels of prejudice and less environmental concern.
Studies show that economic frames thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy – when I am spoken to as an ego-centered, rational ”economic man”, I become more like him. Other values I also hold, for example community, unity with nature and justice for all, become less important to me. And it is only the latter, intrinsic values that are helpful if I am going to act for a sustainable and just world. As the parliamentary proposition suggests, research shows that people are increasingly labeled as consumers. Nowadays we are not just customers in the grocery store, but also at school and at the hospital.
We are even framed as customers in relationship to nature. Green groups have for some time proposed the concept ”ecosystem services” to deal with the fact that nature is often treated as having no value at all. In the beginning “ecosystem services” was used as a pedagogic tool to highlight human dependence on nature. Increasingly the concept is being used as a management practice – governments in the UK, Norway and recently Sweden have made efforts to include the ecosystem service perspective in decision-making.
A Swedish governmental report on ecosystem services includes a study of how the perspective is received by practitioners, who are expected to implement it on different levels. The respondents believe that the concept has great pedagogic power in its ability to represent something that has previously been invisible. Ecosystem services doesn´t have to mean price tags, but that seems to be top of mind for the respondents. They point out that monetary valuation of nature is something new, and both an opportunity and a risk.
Pricing nature is viewed as a potentially powerful way of of communicating with broader groups, and also of integrating the value of ecosystems in socioeconomic analyses that form the basis of decision-making. Simultaneously, it is seen as deeply problematic; because, for example, that resulting conclusions tend to be viewed as objective truths while underlying assumptions might be very shaky, that monetary valuation doesn’t grasp diversity, complexity or scale, and that some of the “services” are in effect economically invaluable.
This apparent contradiction among people who have actively thought about and used the concept of ecosystem services (e.g. their belief that it’s useful but poses a risk) is interesting and might reflect something deeper: an important tension in the values we all hold. Seeing nature as a living, beautiful web that we are connected to and pricing it for the services that it delivers, are viewpoints that may be incompatible. These two positions reflect values that are very difficult, or impossible, to hold simultaneously.
Several actors have also warned against using economic frames in communicating nature´s value. George Monbiot exposes the gross new lexicon it has already led to. Resource Media, a US non-profit PR firm, has prepared a needs assessment on ecosystem services messaging as a step toward helping practitioners more effectively convey the value of their work. They state that people: 1. don’t understand the concept ecosystem services and 2. don’t like it, as it is inadequate to convey the core values at stake:
While Americans strongly value the many benefits provided by nature and natural systems, they resist use of the term “services” to capture those benefits insofar as it suggests nature’s primary value is in the services provided to people. To put it another way, “services” offends our expansive sense of the incalculable and intangible benefits nature provides.
Public Interest Research Center (PIRC) in Wales recently issued a report, Common Cause for Nature – Values and Frames in Conservation, which cautions against using economic frames and appeals to competition, status or money when communicating nature’s value. A more viable way, PIRC argues, is to show how amazing nature is and share the experience of wildlife; talk about people, society and compassion as well as the natural world; and encourage active participation through exploration, enjoyment, and creativity.
Life is being converted to money at an accelerating and increasingly irreversible rate. Can the concept ecosystem services slow down the destruction? Maybe. Is it a stepping-stone towards a necessary shift in the relationship between human society and the living world? Probably not, for reasons stated above. It doesn’t address root causes to the problem – it reinforces them.
It is of course a step in a positive direction when governments suggest policy that take ecosystems into account. But there is something intriguing about a concept that is embraced by the powers that be, politicians and business, while ordinary people and practitioners are wary of it.
“Ecosystem services” is in itself a frame, picturing nature in terms of the beneficial functions it performs, as an asset. It implies that humanity is a consumer of nature, instead of a connected part of the living web. And that creates further distance between us and nature. Especially when money is involved, this approach undermines social and environmental motivations. When we are told to care about nature because it is profitable it also diminishes us. We know that we are an integral part of the world, not nature’s customers. In the long run, it is important that we actively speak that truth, rather than clothing our words in the dominant language and values.