Anthropocentric ecosystem services versus geocentric technosystem services

In previous posts I have argued against the flawed anthropocentrism of the ecosystem services concept. But what is the alternative? How can we practically achieve a geocentric turn? Literally, that would mean that we reverse the direction of functional analysis. In the ecosystem concept, we ask what ecosystems do for us. Now we might ask what we can do for the Earth. More specifically, I introduce the notion of ‘technosystem services’: This means, we analyze the technosphere with regard to the functions that it provides to the Earth system. This is highly abstract, but we can easily pin down this on a more concrete level. Moving to the other extreme, we would ask which services the technosphere provides, say, to the bees or the oaks, putting other species on the same level as humans. Needless to say, we would end up with an analytical mess, because the respective functions would be myriad, specific for various species, and would often stay in tension (how about predators and prey?). However, taking this extreme view is useful to get home the message that we humans cannot simply claim to be the masters of nature.

The intermediate level of analysis is to inquire into the relation between technosphere and biosphere: We would ask, what are the biospheric functions of the technosphere? Obviously, as I argued in a previous post, we mostly approach their relationship as competitive. A case in point is the HANPP measure, which basically is about human claims on space that otherwise would be claimed by autotrophic organisms: We build roads with impervious surface that are clean of plants, or we harvest plants as fodder for meat production that we consume, thereby competing against other heterotrophic organisms. Therefore, we can use HANPP to directly measure how the technosphere encroaches on the biosphere, in terms of carbon or biomass subject to technospheric functions. However, this raises an intricate question: What if the technosphere would enhance the productivity of the biosphere? This question is rarely raised when discussing renewables as panacea to resolve our current dilemmas. Photovoltaic energy production is the case in point. Solar cells directly compete with plants over territory. There are calculations that show that if we really wanted to fuel the technosphere by solar energy exclusively, that would claim absurdly large territory and hence would still damage the biosphere, unless all territory claimed by humans otherwise could be simultaneously used to produce energy, just as we do when installing solar panels on roofs. But that is still science fiction, and probably remains so (the reason is the vastly diverging power densities of urban energy consumption and of renewable energy production). Hence, just pushing renewables for further growing the technosphere is not enough.

But the argument reveals that there is another solution: What is if we use the roofs for the biosphere, as in ‘green roofing’? Green roofing is a standard example for a ‘nature based solution’, which is mostly analyzed in terms of functions for humans, such as positive effects on urban micro-climate. In general, we can imagine designing a synergetic relationship between technosphere and biosphere if we can create ‘dual uses’ for space claimed by humans, such that the human use also contributes to the productivity of the biosphere: The green roof is populated by autotrophic plants.

I generalize this to the notion of’ geocentric technosphere services’: How can the technosphere support biospheric functions, if possible, not only by making up for losses, but even positively contributing? There is an excellent example: Urban wildlife. Only in the recent decades, ecologists have recognized that cities can be places with a rich biodiversity, though, of course, different from pristine natural states, but considerably richer than agricultural monocultures that feed them (Magle et al. 2019). Often, endangered species only survive in cities, even at tightly circumscribed locations (Soanes and Lentini 2019). Cities are the core of the technosphere: Hence, if we imagine that cities might emerge as places with a vibrant wildlife, that would be a case in point for a co-evolutionary and co-creative relationship between technosphere and biosphere (‘wild-life inclusive cities’, Apfelbeck et al. 2020).

That means, we must turn ‘nature-based solutions’ from head to feet. For example, if we consider a park, we ask what the park can contribute to the fecundity, sustainability and growth of wildlife in the city. This would have consequences, as we would not be the arbiters of what ‘wildlife’ is: We must accept nature’s ways and adapt to them. Of course, there are limits, such as controlling animals dangerous to humans, but we should refrain as much as possible from any interventions. Cities can be places of rapid evolutionary change: In the long run new species can evolve that are adapted to the urban environments, as it is already happening. Therefore, one general principle of technosystem service analysis would be to enhance evolutionary potential (Rivkin et al. 2019). For example, this means that one would not design green roofs in isolation, but consider the emergence of connected habitats of roofs, parks, or roadside trees in an urban district, which would be urban spaces of wildlife.

In the end of the day, this cohabitation of humans and wildlife in cities also pays in terms of ecosystem services: after all, we know that contact with nature is good for human health in all dimensions (Jennings et al. 2017; Colding et al. 2020). However, we must refrain from subordinating urban habitat design to this goal, but accept the wilderness encroaching on us. We cannot avoid the growth of cities, which is an exorable trend all over the world. Hence, we must develop concepts and policies that turn cities into an integral part of the biosphere: ‘Technosystem service analysis’ is the appropriate methodological framework.

Apfelbeck, Beate, Robbert P.H. Snep, Thomas E. Hauck, Joanna Ferguson, Mona Holy, Christine Jakoby, J. Scott MacIvor, Lukas Schär, Morgan Taylor, and Wolfgang W. Weisser. „Designing Wildlife-Inclusive Cities That Support Human-Animal Co-Existence“. Landscape and Urban Planning 200 (August 2020): 103817.

Colding, Johan, Matteo Giusti, Andreas Haga, Marita Wallhagen, and Stephan Barthel. „Enabling Relationships with Nature in Cities“. Sustainability 12, 11 (27. May 2020): 4394.

Jennings, Viniece, Myron F. Floyd, Danielle Shanahan, Christopher Coutts, and Alex Sinykin. „Emerging Issues in Urban Ecology: Implications for Research, Social Justice, Human Health, and Well-Being“. Population and Environment 39, 1 (September 2017): 69–86. .

Magle, Seth B, Mason Fidino, Elizabeth W Lehrer, Travis Gallo, Matthew P Mulligan, María Jazmín Ríos, Adam A Ahlers, et al., „Advancing Urban Wildlife Research through a Multi‐city Collaboration“. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17, 4 (May 2019): 232–39.

Rivkin, L. Ruth, James S. Santangelo, Marina Alberti, Myla F. J. Aronson, Charlotte W. de Keyzer, Sarah E. Diamond, Marie‐Josée Fortin, et al. „A Roadmap for Urban Evolutionary Ecology“. Evolutionary Applications 12, 3 (March 2019): 384–98. Soanes, Kylie, and Pia E Lentini. „When Cities Are the Last Chance for Saving Species“. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 17, 4 (May 2019): 225–31.

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