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Living in a material world

31 January 2014

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Emeritus Professor Robert Costanza is a leading ecological economist and former Chair in Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy. His research integrates the study of humans and the rest of nature to address sustainability and well-being.

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‘Ecosystems services’ might not be the hot-buzz phrase in policymaking circles just yet, but it is a concept that is quickly gaining ground.

Championed by leading academic, Professor Robert Costanza of Crawford School of Public Policy, the concept of ecosystems services aims to integrate natural and social sciences to account for the substantial contribution the environment makes to the quality and survival of human life.

Writing in the latest edition of Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies, Costanza and his co-author Shuang Liu argue that to have a stable and sustainable future we need to recognise our interdependency with the environment.

“We don’t want to market ecosystem services but we do want to value them,” Costanza said.

“Natural ecosystems are positive assets that are supportive of human life. There are a lot of examples and not all of them are obvious to people.

“For example, coastal wetlands provide storm protection; but it takes quite a lot of study to demonstrate that. It takes scientifically-based study to determine how that connection works.

“Indigenous communities implicitly have understood the value of the environment for supporting life. We need to reframe policymaking to recognise that the ecosystem has importance within the culture of a society and that is embedded in the material world.”

Using the evolving situations in China and the United States, Costanza and Liu say a more sustainable future is possible if the value of our environment is factored into all aspects of decision-making, including economic outcomes, rather than being treated separately.

“It is viewing governments as trustees for the public, having responsibility to the community now and in future generations, thinking about the environment as a community trust rather than a commodity,” Costanza said.

“China and the United States are two major players. They have very different starting points on managing the environment. For example when you look at property rights: in the United States, private property is the norm while in China common property is the rule. However where China and the United States are now converging is in understanding the underlying connection between human wellbeing and the environment.”

While there has been significant research in China on ecosystems services, until recently the language barrier had prevented researchers from English-speaking and Chinese-speaking territories from accessing each other’s work. However Costanza and his colleagues have moved to change this situation by setting up a network to share research information.

“It’s up to us to do what we can to leave a good world. It’s the next generation who are going to end up with all the mistakes we make now,” Costanza said.

This article is freely available on the Wiley Blackwell website. To read the full article, visit Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies online at

Asia and the Pacific Policy Studies is the flagship journal of Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University. The Journal aims to break down barriers across disciplines, and generate policy impact.

Story by Belinda Thompson.

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