Is Humanity Nature’s Customer?

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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.

Published by Pella Thiel

Swedish change-maker and social entrepreneur Pella Thiel has a background in ecology. After working in the environmental movement she grew increasingly frustrated over the solutions proposed, which seemed more like a treatment of symptoms than real change. She found the Transition Movement and developed an interest for inner transition. On that path she’s connected with the Common Cause International Network and is exploring the role that values play in making deep change. What engages her most is reconnecting with nature and creating space to increase trust in the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

7 replies on “Is Humanity Nature’s Customer?”

  1. Dangerous idea. The Tree of Life that is the living planet should not be mechanized into a “service-entity” — any more than women or children should be objectified into being service-mates.

    At minimum, such a mindset would require a zero-waste policy as advocated by the cradle-to-cradle innovation institute. Every output from industrial processes has to be an input somewhere else in the system, or otherwise food for the Earth. That is the only way to guarantee sustainability.

    But really, one should see the planet and its ecosystems as sacred, as the Native Americans did, until correction and balance is achieved. The mindset advocated above would continue an insane policy of “endless growth” on a finite planet where basic systems are already deeply compromised.

    Mark Janssen
    Tacoma, Washington

  2. I identify as part of the ‘post growth’ movement. I also work within government, where over the years, I’ve seen example after example where we seem to have forgotten how to make decisions based on any other criteria but the dollar. And I loathe the language of the consumer/customer being used in place of ‘citizen’.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the mind/heartset should be about seeing humanity as part of a connected web, and of cultures that venerate nature as sacred. I don’t think that a price can or should be put upon nature, except as an educational tool to jolt people into understanding that there is a value.

    Unfortunately, we are currently living in a world where we have some minds/hearts who think very differently, and who behave in a very rapacious way, particularly where they are in positions of influence and power.

    What I worry about is – if expressing nature in economic language is falling into a trap (and I ultimately believe it is), then how do we defend and secure nature until there is a critical mass, or a system change, where we get to that ideal scenario?

    Because those rapacious influences can and are moving much faster than the shift in culture.

  3. This is an excellent article – long overdue …. The title of the book “The Absence of the Sacred” (Mander) says it all for me – once we banished the “religious” concept of the sacred from our lexicon and replaced it with the “scienctific” concept that all is subject to quantifiable measure, natures systems, and all carbon based organisms for that matter, including ourselves, became commodities – the market based model of life becomes the inevitable result ….

  4. Anon,
    hi, sorry for slow response. One of the most interesting ideas in this aspect is, I believe, the concept of natures´rights and ecocide as a crime. It reflects the case that living systems might in fact be invaluable. We seldom deal successfully with infinite values in the economic sphere. For example, I would not sell my kids to you, regardless of the price you offer. If I kill somebody, I can´t compensate for that with money – I go to jail. Infinite value is better dealt with using law.

    Rights of nature has, as you might know, been integrated into state law in Ecuador and in Bolivia, and several local communities in the US has adopted local laws for the rights of nature to protect their territories against fracking:

    Also, support for ecocide as a crime is moving fast at the moment. There is an initiative in Europe: End Ecocide in Europe, that is currently collecting votes from EU citizens to make the Commission create laws to prevent ecocide:

    Listen to Polly Higgins, a well-spoken advocate for ecocide, about that the idea has quite old roots and was once something that many governments supported:

    Of course, I share your worry. And, I don´t think our chances of saving anything are greater using the language of the current power.

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