Freedoms and nature and the nature of freedoms: Building a capability theory for ecosystem services

Szaboova, Lucy (1); Brown, Katrina (1); De Silvey, Caitlin (1); Fisher, Janet (2) (2016). 'Freedoms and nature and the nature of freedoms: Building a capability theory for ecosystem services' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

abstract To date, much research effort has been concentrated on studying the contribution of ecosystem services to well-being in developing countries, especially the role of such services for poverty alleviation (Fisher et al., 2014; Suich et al., 2015). Some of this work draws on lessons from the Capability Approach (Dawson and Martin, 2015). However, less extensive and explicit attention has been dedicated to the ecosystem services-well-being nexus in developed settings. This paper aims to open up discussion by addressing the questions: What insights can the Capability Approach offer for how we conceptualize and investigate the ecosystem services and well-being relationship? How can these inform the development of a capability theory for ecosystem services? We present the findings of research carried out in the UK between 2012 and 2015. The objective of this study is to illuminate the complexities of ecosystem services and well-being relationships by operationalizing Sen’s Capability Approach (Sen, 1985, 2008). Ecosystem services are defined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) as the benefits people obtain from ecosystems. Though it is clear that ecosystem services contribute to human well-being, a better understanding of the processes by which benefits occur is needed. Ecosystem services are, therefore, treated here as socially constructed; mediated by values, relationships and the  social-cultural context (Latour, 2004; Barnaud & Antona, 2014; Chan et al., 2016). We operationalise the Capability Approach in two ways, and expand its existing conceptual domain to better accommodate the notion of ecosystem services. First, the capability approach advances a deeper and richer conceptualization of human well-being thus offering a novel focus to analyse the ecosystem services and well-being relationship. Second, although attempts have been made to adopt and adapt the Capability Approach to better account for the essential role of nature’s services for human capabilities and freedoms (Holland, 2008; Polishchuk and Rauschmayer, 2012; Watene, 2016), scope remains for further refinement, building on empirical experiences such as those from this research. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) framework alludes to Sen’s conceptualization of well-being in that the MEA’s well-being components incorporate the overarching idea of freedom of choice and action. However, to date, research focus remains mostly restricted to the more tangible aspects of well-being, which are easier to assess and measure (e.g. basic material for good life, health etc.), while human freedoms to pursue valued goals continue to be somewhat neglected. Therefore, this paper uses freedom as the key ‘variable’ through which to explore the capability forming and well-being enhancing potential of ecosystem services. We consider freedoms in a broad sense, not limited to people’s capabilities alone. Accordingly, we examine the scope for freedom being exercised at different stages of the ecosystem services – well-being continuum. By focusing on freedom we identify the mechanisms and challenges that mediate people’s well-being outcomes, shifting the focus from outcomes to opportunities. Our findings reveal the complex nature of human capabilities and the consequent challenges around capability formation and translation of capabilities (opportunities) into functionings (outcomes). These challenges arise due to the interlinked nature of different valued capabilities (of all types, including but not limited to the environmental domain) and the trade-offs that need to be negotiated as a result. This confirms Robeyns’ suggestion that capabilities are not only limited by conversion factors (Robeyns, 2016). This idea is discussed and further developed, supported by empirical examples. Each of these constraints has important implications for people’s freedom – and choice – to pursue valued capabilities. The paper concludes by outlining a schema for a possible framework for a capability theory for ecosystem services, complementing existing efforts by novel insights from this research. Keywords: freedom, ecosystem services, well-being, capability theory

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