torstai 14. tammikuuta 2016

Being here: Biodiversity and human health, again

Nature is good for humans in a multitude of ways, thanks to biodiversity and its ecosystem services. Of course, nature still causes inner and outer suffering, but in general, and in advanced societies, biodiversity is good from the point of view of subjective and objective human well-being and health. There is growing evidence that nature is no longer a sorry constraint and an unknown that blocks the enlightened purposes of humans.

Ontologically speaking, human arrangements are extending deeper into the “wild”. For instance, a multitude of varieties of REDD+ schemes are being put into practice in different locations on Earth and new ways to identify, map, value and incorporate ecosystem services in resource and land use planning are already routine. Perhaps paradoxically, the days are forgotten when complexity and chaos theories complicated and challenged rational and deliberative planning and decision-making about natural assets, so strong is the optimism about the concept of ecosystem services.

But the “wild" does not stay out there beyond the boundaries of convenience. Under close examination, ecosystem services are not just benefits that flow from the environment to humans. Ecosystems and their services are part of human life, i.e. human life is constituted and sustained by the functional consequences of biodiversity. John Dewey was  already well aware of this. In Human Nature and Conduct, he writes about habits (1988, 14):

"…habits may be profitably compared to physiological functions, like breathing, digesting. The latter are, to be sure, involuntary, while habits are acquired. But important as is this difference for many purposes it should not conceal the fact that habits are like functions in many respects, and especially in requiring the cooperation of organism and environment. Breathing is an affair of the air as truly as of the lungs; digesting an affair of food as truly as of tissues of stomach."

Dewey’s insight was scientifically validated by Hanski et al. (2012), as they found that a decrease in the diversity and quantity of microbial exposure makes our immune system overreact to harmless targets such as our own tissues and allergens. It is now warranted knowledge that ecosystem services happen inside and outside the human body. Disturbances in the delivery of the functional consequences of ecosystems are not only problematic “out there” but “in here” as well. This is important. An increase in environmental pollutants and increased exposure to both those and non-diverse nature have harmful effects on the human immune system.

Diverse nature is good for humans. But it is a tricky question for a modern human as to where this nature is and how to get in contact with it. It is laborious and consumes time and effort to go to nature: people are connected with each other and technologies, but not with nature. We must recall that our backyards are right there in nature, and with their tongues, fur and feet, our pets bring nature inside our houses. As recent studies show, contact with house pets is good for the humans: not only do they contaminate us with positive emotions and motivation to move but also with micro-biota that reduce the risk of childhood asthma (Fall et al. 2015).

During the past few years, understanding of the functional role of biodiversity in ecological assemblages, immune defence systems and pollutant degradation has grown, experiment by experiment and publication by publication. Concrete policy advice is still thin. But the fact is that new findings about the interrelations between environmental variables and human health, particularly risks of autoimmune and immune-mediated diseases, helps planners and policy makers to see new problems but also new opportunities.

These opportunities are not without their implications. And these implications are the field of research for the pragmatically orientated ecological economics for the decades to come. Let me give in some broad brushstrokes a few implications that are ahead of us.

Habits are environmentally constituted. People just do not have habits: people are their habits. As we all know, habit-breaking is not just a matter of getting the correct information about the health impacts of, say, your consumption patterns or monotonous nature. Yes, of course, dramatic pictures may be highly disturbing, but images very seldom change your beliefs or the ways you act - they may change your attitudes, though.

Habit change takes a modification in your action environment. These modifications do not have to be large, but they need be to concrete - and often physical. Otherwise, the existence of new information or persuasion would do the deed. Living environments need to be modified so that the health effects of biodiversity permeate the human skin and membranes and, equally importantly, habits of feeling, acting and thinking: biodiversity needs to become part of us.

This is a challenge, because societies are organised for precisely the opposite purpose: to keep nature out and provide safe and well-planned access points to nature. But, as I have indicated above, new findings about the interdependence of biodiversity and human health will ultimately change how we plan our land use, design our houses and organise our everyday lives. Grasping these problems and designing solutions are still well beyond current scientific and policy understanding. Transdisciplinary - i.e. revolutionary, creative and experimental - advice for, say, city planning, child day-care and food processing is needed.

The list of emerging themes is much longer. But these examples suffice here. Biodiversity and health is the question of our time. There is no longer any reason to cherish what the late German social scientist Ulrich Beck called “the century error” and “organised irresponsibility”. It is not enough to take human purpose out into the wild and design ever more complex schemes for paying for ecosystem services. The wild needs to be brought inside the human domain (Hiedanpää et al. 2011).

Understanding this as an ontological necessity will help us to focus on the practical implications of changing habits of feeling, acting and thinking. Not only will an enormous sum of money be saved because of the increased well-being and prevention of autoimmune and related diseases in particular, but, more generally, being habituated to live with biodiversity and ecosystem services would put an end to organised irresponsibility and the century error: we must cherish what is part of us. This changes everything.

Juha Hiedanpää, ESEE (European Society for Ecological Economics), Newsletter, Hot Topic, Winter 2015 (


Dewey, J. 1988. Human Nature and Conduct. The Middle Works, 1899–1924: Vol 14. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Fall, T., Lundholm, C., Örtqvist, A.K., Fall, K., Fang; F., Hedhammar, Å., Kämpe, O., Ingelsson, E. & Almqvist; C. 2015. Early exposure to dogs and farm animals and the risk of childhood asthma. JAMA Pediatr 169(11):e153219. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3219.

Hanski I., von Hertzen L., Fyhrquistc N. et al. 2012. Environmental biodiversity, human microbiota, and allergy are interrelated. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109: 8334–9.

Hiedanpää, J., Kotilainen, J. & Salo, M. 2011. Unfolding the organised irresponsibility: Ecosystem approach and the quest for forest biodiversity in Finland, Peru, and Russia. Forest Policy Econ 13: 159–165.