Public Good: Why we must value community environmental organisations
As we draw to the close of the Sylfaen project, I am reflecting on what we have learned.
The purpose of the organisations involved with Sylfaen is to protect, maintain, and enhance natural ecological assets in a way that not only serves their intrinsic well-being, but underpins the ecosystem services they provide to human beings. In plain language: they look after the environment so that the environment can look after people.
The organisation “Common Cause” presents a model of human behaviour based on research that explains things in terms of values. They claim that all human beings everywhere are governed by a common set of underlying values and that any human population can be segmented according to the values that are currently operational within their psyche. Typically, pro-environmental behaviours are driven by values in the “universal benevolence” or “transcendence” segment. The values in this segment also underlies behaviours that are directed to helping others. Business acumen, and the drive to succeed in business however, are associated with values in the “self enhancement” segment. The Common Cause theory claims that the values and behaviours associated with self enhancement are antagonistic to those of the transcendence segment. In other words, people who care about other people and the environment are not very motivated or competent business managers!
The good news, according to Common Cause, is that while business competence and universalism are antagonistic, there is a route between them. Furthermore, a person can hold conflicting values at the same time and their behaviours be driven by one set of values over another according to the most pressing need. So people who are motivated to act for the environment and the good of humanity can be trained to become competent, strategic and motivated business managers. This matters because like it or not, we operate in an economic system in which everything has a monetary value and goods and services are traded. Ecosystems and certain groups of people have been undervalued, marginalised and the harm done to them externalised from normal accounting. A sustainable future, the Wales that is described by the Well-being of Future Generations Act for example, does the opposite of this: the economic worth of ecosystem services is fully realised and all members of society are enabled to make a positive contribution.
At the Denmark Farm open day, representatives of other groups in the area talked about the constraints on income generation that they are experiencing. As I listened it became clear to me that these rural assets and their associated services were exactly the things that groups in urban areas needed. Here were the basic elements of a market place – someone with a need (the buyer) and someone able to satisfy that need (the seller). While the challenge is to bring these two together, the outcome would benefit the whole of society. How much public expenditure on drugs, primary care, social care and support services for diverse groups such as mental health patients, those seeking to rebuild their lives after incarceration, veterans, the elderly, the lonely, refugees, school children, low income families, people recovering from major illness, urban teenagers and many more could be averted if the therapeutic power of nature was more easily accessible? The community-based environmental sector needs to present itself as a cost effective solution offering financial and other co-benefits. These are of most immediate relevance to the NHS and local government but they extend way out into business and wider society.
So, the Co-op Foundation were absolutely correct in identifying the need to strengthen the financial viability and business management capacity of community based environmental organisations in Wales. These organisations need to be well managed so that they are a safe investment and a reliable contractor but they also need to develop the marketing & communication skills possessed by any successful business in order to attract potential clients. The Sylfaen project training programme covered all these aspects – financial management and planning, governance, communications and marketing – but this is only the first step. Organisations like the Wales Co-operative Centre, Cynnal Cymru and the Co-op Foundation need to work with the public and private sectors to create the market place in which these organisations can sell their services. A clearer understanding of ecosystem services is developing within the public sector and in big business but we also need local businesses to understand that ecosystem services also benefit them.
The extent to which community based environmental organisations can participate in purely commercial transactions is probably limited. We may well need to subsidise them in the same way that we are currently considering subsidising farmers for the ecological and public good they can provide. In any case, the recipients of subsidy need to be reliable, accountable and effective. So while the motivations of our community-based environmental organisations are non-commercial, we need them to be able to perform like successful businesses. The fact that a number of them have existed for several decades against all odds is a tribute to the business talent they already possess, but we must never take that for granted; and as a society, we must value what they provide and be prepared to pay for it.