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Talking nature’s benefits in Washington, D.C.

I recently accompanied a team of environmental leaders to Washington D.C. for a series of discussions with senior environmental agency staff about ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are, basically, the benefits that nature provides. For example, the ability of forests to refresh water supplies and reduce air pollution, or the ability of clean rivers to provide healthy fish as a local food source.  

Over the course of the week, a couple of things struck me. First: everyone was so genuine. This was D.C.—the seat of power of one of the most powerful nations there has ever been. The people working at these government agencies are bright, levelheaded people who embody the word “service.”  The other thing that struck me was how strong the desire for that overlap between business, government, and community organizations was. People want that overlap to happen more, happen better, and achieve more than what can be achieved in isolation. There was repeated interest in bringing businesses and local communities into discussions on how best to manage public lands and the ecosystem services that operate on them. 

The ecosystem services field overlaps economics, environmental sciences, habitat and wildlife conservation, natural resource management, corporate planning and operations, economic development, urban planning, disaster prevention, and environmental protection disciplines. 

Not many ideas have brought so many different people and ways of thinking about the environment together, but this has caused confusion about how we characterize our relationship with nature, how we determine which natural benefits to classify as ecosystem services, and how to value them. The Principles to Guide Assessments of Ecosystem Service Values document, hammered out by a team of 30 experts at PSU in July 2013, put this issue at its center. 

The ecosystem services field, and our journey towards sustainability in general, is at an important crossroad. Can governments, businesses, and communities work together towards solutions that bring jobs, health, and vitality to our communities, heal the land and maintain its ability to sustain us, and accommodate the biodiversity upon which those ecosystem services depend?

This is a long road we are on, but based on the response we got from the folks in D.C., I think we can.

Interested in learning more? Join us on Friday, January 24 for a free presentation and discussion on the principles of ecosystem services, including social sustainability aspects, and their possible uses in the collaborative management of natural resources. This presentation is part of PSU's Social Sustainability Colloquium series. More info here.

Simon Ngawhika is a post-graduate fellow of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions and a recent graduate of PSU's MBA program.