At the Well blog


Ecological compensation – Greenwashing or washing-proof green?

We are developing our environment. We wish for contributions to build an infrastructure that would serve the society better, and are delighted by gigantic investments in new bioproduct factories. All the forests will soon be filled by multiprocess machines, which will be crunching our slowly growing wood in order to fill bigger and bigger cellulose pulp mills. The mass they produce can be turned into excellent long-fibre toilet paper, which keeps the fingers clean. Good news is no news, they say, but a couple of years ago the Finnish mainstream media tried to write positive news headlines: “The Chinese are learning how to use toilet paper – this sector is wiping well (= doing well) in Finland”. Absolutely brilliant: soon the whole world will wipe its butt with the Finnish forests.

Building factories, reservoirs, mines, harbours, highways, airports, railroads, sports facilities and domes, skiing tracks and slopes, malls, cities, even private houses and summer cottages for human needs has tangible negative effects on the life environments of other species. The effects are easy to see. In addition, woodcutting, rock quarrying, peat collecting, clearing fields, and other forms of using natural resources weaken other species’ living conditions. Actions that damage the environment or even destroy nature values are seen as positive developments.

Like other species, humans are also totally dependent on the ecosystem services provided by functioning ecosystems, and especially their biotic parts. There is an on-going global discussion on whether it is politically possible to agree that the actions of humanity would not further weaken the state of the environment. Despite this goal, the GNP of Finland and other western countries is still strongly connected with the usurpation of natural resources. This challenges the pursuit to limit the negative impact on the environment, and makes political decision-making more difficult.

One way of reaching the goal is ecological compensation. It means compensating or offsetting in one area for nature values damaged or destroyed in another area, by supporting the biological environments and increasing nature values. Ecological compensations have been criticized because they are believed to lead into moral decay and a permissive culture towards destroying nature. “I can, safely and without scruples, fell the trees and the stumps, remove the heathland, and replace these woods with the biggest kids’ bouncing castle in the world, a family-friendly junk food restaurant, and of course the necessary parking lots and driveways, as long as I make a small investment in improving the piece of forest close by. But is the criticism justified in a situation when the same woods can always be replaced by a bouncing castle, a junk food restaurant, and a parking lot with driveways, even without any offsetting for environmental loss? Isn’t a small compensation for nature better than no compensation at all?

There are many forms of expressing the relationship between humans and nature in our culture, and the ways in which we talk about nature have at least an indirect effect on how we treat nature. Humanities scholars and social scientists have in Finland, too, focused on this relationship from different angles. Researchers in environmental history, ecomusicology, literary ecocriticism, and ecolinguistics have been tracing the different cultural models that define our relationship with nature. One of the research questions for different ecocritical traditions is in which ways the Finnish nature has been made visible and audible in our culture, for example in art.

But how about natural scientists, are they aware of their cultural assumptions, or do these only have a hidden influence on their ways of writing about nature? There is no direct relationship between natural scientists, their texts, and the phenomena they describe in nature or the environment: it is always permeated by cultural models. The relationship can be deconstructed by focusing on text analysis; for instance, it has been shown that metaphors are often used about nature even in natural scientific writing.

Ecological compensation is interesting even as a concept, and it is useful to elaborate on its cultural dimensions. What is our conception of nature if we think that we can compensate for destroying it? What is the natural scientist’s compensatable nature really like? Does nature have an intrinsic value, maybe romantic, but something that we can compensate for? Does a domesticated commercial forest or garden constitute nature for a natural scientist, like a wilderness? What is the opposite of nature: human or artificial (or something else)? And if nature is the opposite of the artificial, is compensation part of the artificial, and so what does compensation have to do with nature? In other words, if humans are part of nature, and not special beings which rule, dominate, or protect it, should we conclude that here we have another creature doing her part in changing the environment, and we do not have to worry or compensate.


The background of this text is the goal of Kone Foundation to make the world better. A way of accomplishing the goal is to promote contacts between people by organizing encounters between humans from different fields and sectors and by supporting Kone Foundation grantees’ international travel. In the meetings arranged by the foundation, it values politeness and generosity. One of the foundation’s values is environmental responsibility.

The fine aims and working methods of Kone Foundation increase indirectly the burden on the environment: in order to meet, the grantees must travel, and even though the foundation has a local emphasis, for the sake of generosity it is necessary to transport wine. The foundation takes care of its environmental responsibility by seeking for working methods that make the world better by offsetting environmental losses voluntarily. This is the context of the June 2017 event Ecological compensation – Greenwashing or washing-proof green?, which serves as a background for a funding call on the same theme in the autumn.


Janne Kotiaho