On wildflowers

Bluebells are putting on their annual display across England – a wildflower that can be seen along roadside verges, in parks and on the edge of farmland, and in places as a spectacular blue carpet covering a woodland floor.  In a previous piece of writing[i] I questioned the rationale behind making people pay to view the bluebells at certain National Trust sites in England, concluding that it might be the most effective means of protecting the flower and avoiding damage from congestion, or ‘overuse’.  Now seems a good opportunity to revisit that discussion as the first full week of May is National Wildflower Week in the USA, and the EU has just banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides from all outdoor applications[ii].

A carpet of Bluebells in a wood near Cheltenham

Wildflowers play a vital role in ecosystems, as a food source for a wide variety of bees and other pollinators, and habitat for a wide range of beneficial insects and wildlife.  Some have medicinal properties[iii], and they provide aesthetic pleasure, contribute to well-being, and inspiration to poets and artists[iv].   In many ways they can be considered as public goods, and apart from some limited legislation pertaining to specific species (such as the Bluebell in the UK) unmanaged under an open access regime.  Despite the high value placed on wildflowers, illustrated through the willingness of people to pay to view spectacular displays of Snowdrops and Bluebells, and the vast number of images of wildflowers that are purchased each year (e.g. on greeting cards) we do little to protect this valuable resource.  The vast majority of wildflowers grow on private property over which we have little control.  Although they provide essential ecological functions from which all of society benefits they are privately owned and controlled, relying on the goodwill of the landowner for their continued existence.  The recent EU legislation is therefore a valuable means of protecting the public good aspects of wildflowers, in this case the focus is bees and other pollinating insects that have been declining across Europe[v] .

Protecting the public good aspects of privately controlled resources such as wildflowers is a major concern for those of us studying the governance of common pool resources.  These are resources that are shared among a community of users (which might be large or small) and where one person’s use of the resource prevents others from using that resource (i.e. the resource is ‘subtractable’).  Like wildflowers, these are often complex resources that play multiple roles in the socio-economic-ecological systems we inhabit[vi].  They may be some form of shared resource, providing social or environmental benefits that benefit society as a whole (i.e. public goods), yet are ‘unpriced’ and often left out of any cost-benefit calculations when decisions are made that affect their availability or even their existence.  The property regime, the way in which we decide which resource rights can be assigned to private owners and which resources should be managed for the benefit of wider society, has not kept pace with our understanding and knowledge of ecological processes.  Wildflowers are a good example of the manner in which the property regime enables actions of individuals operating in one part of a complex socio-economic ecological system may have impacts that go well beyond ‘ownership’ boundaries to affect all of society and the ecological systems on which we all depend.  Given our current understanding of ecological systems and the impacts of our socio-economic activities we need to look much more carefully at the institutional arrangements controlling the utilisation of resources.

As a society we need to pay much more attention to the balance between individual gain, derived through a property regime that grants total control of a resource (i.e. private ownership of land), and the impacts resulting from that concentration of control that might negatively affect wider ecosystem processes and social well-being.  Various options present themselves: to incorporate the negative impacts of economic activity (the ‘externalities’) into the pricing system in a way that reflects the severity of the impacts on ecosystems; to change behaviour; or, to regulate through legislation.  None of the alternatives are easy.  The first requires a means of pricing ‘unpriced’ goods which may be perceived and valued differently across society, and although we have made progress in the last fifty years in terms of developing monetary valuation approaches for public goods[vii] the outcome is far from perfect and remains controversial[viii].  The second alternative, to alter behaviour can be achieved through financial incentives, through greater understanding and awareness of the impacts of individual actions[ix], or through a mix of the two.  This approach requires training and education to increase the knowledge base and bring about changes in values and attitudes, processes that may ultimately require generational change to be fully effective.

The third option, regulatory action, may also take years to achieve, the outcome may be watered down as a result of compromises made going through the legislative process, and when adopted require monitoring and enforcement to be effective.  The ban on neonicotinoid pesticides[x] is one example.  It may not be perfect but it will protect a wide variety of pollinators – bees and many other insects – and that will ultimately support the profusion of wildflowers that are now growing in every uncultivated space, both in urban areas and the wider countryside.  That may be enough for now, until we can alter the pricing system, or the way in which we value the ecological systems in which we are embedded.

This year in England we have had cold winter and a long-delayed spring, let’s hope it is not a quiet one[xi] and that we continue to hear the symphony of sound produced by the buzzing of bees and other insect pollinators.


[i]  https://www.ccri.ac.uk/bluebell/

[ii]  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/27/eu-agrees-total-ban-on-bee-harming-pesticides

[iii] http://www.countryfile.com/article/go-outdoors-how-outdoor-skills-foraging/6-unusual-medicinal-plants-found-across-britain

[iv]  Examples include: I wandered lonely as a cloud by Wordsworth https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45521/i-wandered-lonely-as-a-cloud; and, The Bluebell by Anne Bronte can be found at https://allpoetry.com/poem/8457985-The-Bluebell-by-Anne-Bronte though there are no doubt many others in different languages.

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/23/europe-poised-for-total-ban-on-bee-harming-pesticides

[vi]  https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol19/iss2/art30/http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/newsroom/image/document/2017-1/3-4-_socio-ecological_concept_-_marta_perez-soba_and_janet_dwyer_41127.pdf

[vii] http://eprints.glos.ac.uk/2639/

[viii] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

[ix]  http://eprints.glos.ac.uk/3659/


[x] https://theecologist.org/2018/apr/30/campaigners-rejoice-european-union-neonicotinoid-ban

[xi]  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/13/silent-spring-rachel-carson