This article uses the term “ecosystem services” to describe a concept that anyone familiar with the current state of environmental or economic thinking knows about but often doesn’t have a word for. It refers to the part of an environmental or economic system where the work is apparently being done by “nature,” but in effect what is really going on is the cashing in of environmental assets that have accumulated over a long time. There are examples of this is almost every hot-button environmental debate. Whether it’s pumping down millennia-old aquifers in Arizona, cutting down thousand-year-old trees in the Pacific Northwest or pumping out million-year-old oil reserves in the Middle East, almost every booming area or business has one or more of these “ecosystem services” behind it. In fact, there is almost no aspect of our existence where we are not cashing in on the artificially low price of water, oil, coal and all the secondary products that rely on those (like electricity, plastics-based technologies and almost all food). Many people just cut to the chase and call this exploitation, but that kind of pejorative tends to polarize the discussion. “Ecosystem services” on the other hand, isn’t very descriptive. Has anyone seen a better, more evocative word for this? It’s sort of the opposite of “sustainable” as used by the movement, but since that word and metaphor are already so overwrought I hesitate to further burden them by calling this concept “unsustainability.” A bit too loaded and difficult to parse, don’t you think?
I’ve poked around on WorldChanging, since I’ve actually heard guys from there talk about these issues, but a useful catchphrase doesn’t materialize. I think this goes back to what Al Franken was saying at SXSW this year about “framing errors,” that liberals have difficulty taking the analysis and debate on a given topic and framing it in such a way that the average person can not only understand what it being discussed, but can listen for more than five minutes without getting bored. There’s a good argument that these issues are complex and not easily sound-bitten, but there’s a counter-argument that says we’re just defending our inability or unwillingness to sell our agenda.