Ecosystem services: money mania or our best chance yet?

By Joern Fischer

Most people working in biodiversity conservation first heard the term ‘ecosystem services’ in the late 1990s. Gretchen Daily published a seminal book on the topic then, and that’s still the much-cited standard text on the topic. Like many good ideas, the idea of ecosystem services can be traced back quite a long way – but it’s only been since Gretchen published her book that the idea really took off.

By 2005, the ecosystem services concept had become one of the central organizing frameworks of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the single largest international effort to synthesise the state of the world’s ecosystems. There now is an exponentially increasing number of scientific papers written on the subject of ecosystem services. Several NGOs have latched on to the concept as well. Sometimes it seems that what used to be conservation is now ecosystem services.

Some propose that ecosystem services are our best chance yet to convince people that nature should not be destroyed – ecosystem services are the benefits that people derive from nature, after all. So if we see that nature is of use to us, surely, we will be more likely to protect it.

On the other hand, some conservationists argue that on moral grounds, the ecosystem services concept cannot be the way forward. It’s essentially a utilitarian approach, putting people in the centre, and giving a value to other organisms only if they benefit humans. A common (and I think genuine) response of many working on ecosystem services is that it’s all very well to value nature for its own sake: but if people need tangible examples to be convinced of nature’s value, then we may as well emphasise those examples. Beyond the use values, there might be all kinds of other values of nature as well, but often, just the use values alone already provide a strong argument for nature conservation. Arguably, even if we just protected nature where it benefitted us, we’d be protecting a lot more than at present.

In principle, I think there’s nothing wrong with that argument. Indeed, if we can motivate governments to protect watersheds because they are concerned about drinking water or desertification, that’s a good thing. At least it gets them moving. Just appealing to a vague intrinsic value of nature hasn’t worked in many cases, so a pragmatic solution is to speak to decision-makers in the language they understand: tangible human benefits, including in many cases, dollars saved.

There’s just one thing in all this that concerns me a little bit. Overall, I think it’s great that the ecosystem services approach is moving forward, because indeed, governments are interested in it – more than they are in pandas and insects for their own sake. But somehow, I feel we need to do better to keep at the forefront of our minds the limitations of the ecosystem services approach. It’s about valuing nature where it benefits people. It’s not about any kind of intrinsic value, or our moral duty to care for life on earth. It will work best in the context of a pretty narrow perspective where we look after ourselves above all else. But is that not the mindset that got us into trouble in the first place? Our mining or the world’s natural capital has occurred because we cared only about our own benefits. Especially in industrial societies, we have completely lost touch with any kind of moral duty we might have towards ecosystems.

So what do we want: pragmatic progress based on a framework around human self-interest, or a moral high horse loaded with idealism but essentially ineffective in bringing about change?

If it’s outcomes we want, we must be pragmatic. But I do think it’s possible to do more to focus at the same time on the underlying values that need to be considered. Conservation biology stems from a notion that diversity of life is good. This normative postulate (as Michael Soule called it) is seen by conservationists as true regardless of the measurable utility of this diversity. And I think this is important because ultimately, I think we should try to strive for a society where we value diversity of life, including both human and non-human life.

My suggestion therefore is to keep working in ecosystem services and show that people need nature. But in parallel, in other works or in the same ones, we should also highlight the limitations of this approach. If we don’t also focus on issues deeper than our own self-interest, the ecosystem services approach may be just another bit of policy pragmatism, which will bring us short-term gains but falls short of changes that might be needed in our values and beliefs.

Is it possible to be both pragmatic and idealistic?

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4 thoughts on “Ecosystem services: money mania or our best chance yet?

  1. I absolutely agree that it is possible to be both pragmatic and idealistic. We need vision to drive the direction of pragmatism and vision comes from ideals.

  2. Pingback: Why experts seem to always disagree: the issue of framing | Ideas for Sustainability

  3. Pingback: “New conservation” … yet more debate | Ideas for Sustainability

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