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Values, assets, services, resources—choosing our words

Since my last blog, I’ve been working on watershed management plans and thinking about the extent to which we consciously consider the natural aspects of our watersheds, including the fresh or salt water bodies into which they eventually flow.

What difference does it make to how we approach our management planning if we use different words?

I can’t help but feel that it really does make a difference. Top of mind or gut feel and untested ideas follow!

The terminology chosen for New Zealand’s major piece of environmental legislation, the Resource Management Act, is “resource”. My trusty little old Oxford dictionary tells me that the word resource is usually used in the plural to refer to “means of supplying a want, stock that can be drawn on” as well as various other meanings including ingenuity. Sure, the purpose of the Act is stated in section 5 as being sustainable management, which means “managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety while—(a) sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and (b) safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and (c) avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment.” Without being a lawyer or policy-maker, it does seem to me that the presumption is that resources are there to be used, and while “protection”, or refraining from use (likely only some extractive or consumptive or otherwise damaging, rather than all uses – we do let people into national parks, don’t we) is a less preferred option. Strictly speaking, I suspect those words “use, development, and protection” are meant in principle to be given equal weight, with the balancing between them varying from place to place – depending on its “values”.

Ecosystem services is a term increasingly used to describe the benefits that we enjoy for free from the natural processes that go on in ecosystems.  One online definition of “services” offered among many other meanings, “contribution to the welfare of others”, a definition I liked. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the services that ecosystems provide for us include provisioning services such as food and water; regulating services such as flood and disease control; cultural services such as spiritual, recreational, and cultural benefits; and supporting services such as nutrient cycling that maintain the conditions for life on Earth. I think it is a great idea for us to become more consciously aware of the tremendous benefits like these that we gain from natural systems. More and more we are trying to put a financial value on them – this might encourage us to see “protection”, or non-use, as a beneficial thing. For example, an early effort in 1997 by Robert Costanza et al put an average price tag of US$33 trillion a year on these fundamental ecosystem services, which, the article said, “are largely taken for granted because they are free”. That was nearly twice the value of the global gross national product (GNP) of US$18 trillion at the time. In 2008, the 2008 TEEB “Cost of Policy Inaction Study” estimated the annual economic cost of loss of ecosystem services by biodiversity and ecosystem degradation at US$2-4.5 trillion , or 3.3-7.5% of global GDP. In a way this definition brings us back to the phrase “life-supporting capacity” in the Resource Management Act – and this is a good thing! A salutary reminder, one might say.

Okay, what about assets? Lots of definitions here! One was “something valuable that an entity owns, benefits from, or has use of, in generating income”. Another was a “useful or valuable quality, person, or thing; an advantage or resource” (that word again!). One of the things I liked about many of my dictionary and online definitions was the references to things like balance sheets, stock and inventories, because they imply that we’re sitting on top of something valuable – which, in watersheds, we are! These terms also bring to mind the term “natural capital” and remind us that sensible money managers use or reinvest their interest and hold firmly onto the capital!

Perhaps not surprisingly, derived as they are from economic thinking, the definitions of natural capital I found were quite use-focused, one from the UK referring to “any stock or flow of energy and material within the environment that produces goods and services”, and Wikipedia defining it as “the extension of the economic notion of capital (manufactured means of production) to goods and services relating to the natural environment. Natural capital is thus the stock of natural ecosystems that yields a flow of valuable ecosystem goods or services into the future.”  Again, this has to be a good way to think.

Where do “values” fit in? The terms I’ve looked at are all based on values, but these are seldom spelled out. Christchurch City Council made its values very explicit when it wrote its Waterways, wetlands and drainage guide. The Council sets out its philosophy of encouraging people to work with natural features and processes in the landscape. Noting that managing waterways or wetlands frequently includes their restoration and protection, the council integrated their urban stormwater and natural drainage functions with other core values of ecology, landscape, recreation, heritage and culture. The result is a multi-disciplinary and values-based approach to site assessment and to the design and management of developments and land use activities. These intangible values are slightly different from the tangible natural values the PPWCMA focuses on, but these two approaches would probably generate similar outcomes. Certainly in Christchurch, there have been some wonderful water-sensitive and economically beneficial results.

Well, I had hoped to argue myself into a position where I could say that one of these four terms was better than the rest (well, perhaps with three terms tied for first place and “resources” coming last!)  but having gone through this admittedly very superficial analysis, I don’t think I can. Perhaps we need all these kinds of terms and views to really get a grip on any watershed from a number of different perspectives. But I have no doubt that if we are to use values in our assessments and recommendations, we need to be very explicit and clear about what they are and how they will, in a very practical sense, guide our decision-making.