Tarzan on Ecosystem Services

They are singing the legend of Tarzan…They speak of his power over the animals of the jungle. Because his spirit came from them. He understood them. And learned to be as one with them.


Last week I watched The Legend of Tarzan (2016) because I was trapped on a plane for 4 hours. It really wasn’t that bad, despite the scathing reviews it has received. All the outraged critics must have had very high expectations. It’s just a bit of Hollywood fun that is very enjoyable if you don’t take it all too seriously. And there are some nice historically-accurate details to counteract the fantastical story.

As the credits rolled, it struck me that it also provides some good examples of ecosystem services.

The term ‘ecosystem services’ was coined by scientists a few decades ago, at a time when many of our current global economic and environmental problems were gaining momentum. The term and its associated concept were an attempt to get an increasingly disconnected human population to care a little bit more about nature. It’s a new term for an age-old metaphor: Nature as our life support system.

The natural world is essential for our survival. Not as a department store of individual resources to exploit at our will, but as a whole integrated system of connections that keeps us alive across time. Whatever the context, unplug one tube, or break a couple of links in a process, and things don’t turn out so well.

Sadly, this metaphor and its message are often overlooked in the heated public debate over ecosystem services and its related concept, natural capital. It’s not about ‘putting a price on nature’. It’s about encouraging individuals, communities, and institutions to maintain the life-giving benefits of our natural life support system (i.e. nature) without compromising its long-term function.

Ecosystem services are the benefits we receive from nature that help us to survive. They come in many shapes and forms, and most of the time we can’t identify them as discrete units. It’s easier to think of them as a whole system, of which various components provide different kinds of benefits depending on the context, and each component is linked to all the others. To truly benefit from ecosystem services, we need to understand the relationships between all these components and be part of the system.

The Legend of Tarzan provides some perspective. As the king of the jungle (which isn’t a real thing, mind you), Tarzan’s life is plugged into nature; he survives because he understands and respects all the connections and interactions going on around him.

Tarzan’s most famous form of jungle transport is via jungle vines (actual name: lianas). And he knows, just by looking, which vine will carry a man and which will break his neck. This practice is not actually possible in real life. But if it was, it would be an example of provisioning services, the material or tangible benefits we get from nature…not all of which have to be traded commodities.

When Tarzan suffers a gash on his shoulder after his hand-to-hand combat with an angry silverback, his friend George sews it up with the mandibles of ants. This traditional method of suturing wounds has been practiced for centuries by African, Asian and South American people. Ants are held over the wound until they clamp their jaws into the surrounding skin, then their bodies are broken off to leave the jaws in place. Medical resources and pharmaceuticals are another type of provisioning service.

And it’s not just Tarzan who needs the Congo’s ecosystem services. In England, Jane argues with John (Tarzan) to let her come with him back to the African wilderness. It’s where she grew up and where she made her happiest memories. “I want to go home!” she says emphatically. This kind of emotional and spiritual connection to a natural place, called cultural ecosystem services, can never be priced as a material commodity. But this is one of the most important, and most overlooked, ways people benefit from nature.

Tarzan and Jane’s respect for the Congolese people and their customs, part of the whole social-ecological system, comes from their intimate understanding of the ecosystem. Through this understanding they are able to benefit from the system themselves without compromising the benefits the others.

In contrast, Rom, the creepy little Belgian, represents the capitalist economy and commercial exploitation of nature. He blows in to exploit a single resource (diamonds) for his own benefit. He knowingly destroys multiple connections and links in the local life support systems, including the livelihoods of others, to achieve his personal goals. And it doesn’t turn out so well for him, or those around him.


© Manu Saunders 2016

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