Ecosystem services: same sky, different horizon

By Andra Milcu

Protecting nature for its own sake is beautiful – but it’s not working. Appealing to the “sake” of nature only makes sense to people who share the paradigm of conservationism or to people with a strong life conviction. Personal wellbeing, on the other hand, speaks to everyone with a survival instinct, which is… everyone. The immediate connection between the human bare necessities and the distant natural world was the incontestable missing link of environmental protection until the emergence of ecosystem services. “Everyone in the world depends completely on Earth’s ecosystems and the services they provide, such as food, water, disease management, climate regulation, spiritual fulfillment, and aesthetic enjoyment”. This is how the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment synthesis began. In other words, if you don’t want to preserve Earth’s natural systems because environmentalists tell you so, than at least do it for your own sake.

During one of our group’s weekly meetings we asked ourselves if it might not be wrong to employ so intensively the notion of “ecosystem services”, thereby assuming that natural systems ought to be analyzed primarily in relation to the benefits they bring to humankind. Visibly there is an ethical problem that would worry any person who takes the time to go beyond the enthusiasm of the glamorous, readymade solution offered by the MEA. (By the way, why not write a Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from the perspective of baboons, penguins or yellow belly toads?  Would they like the existing one?)

At first glance, the “ecosystem service” perspective indeed appears to be a step backwards towards anthropocentrism – but only if we want to see it like this.  We may agree that the anthropocentric approach is not so honorable but at the same time we all feel powerless at the prospect of triggering biodiversity conservation without a trigger. Eventually you need to speak the same language as everybody else and particularly as the ones who can pull the trigger. How would the intrinsic value of nature be translated into politics and economics? Can we imagine a politician talking about the intrinsic value of ecosystems? And if so who would be his audience? How to get the message through?

Presumably, everything began with the precise question of how to make biodiversity conservation effective. The idea of a monetary valuation of ecosystems was first supported by economists with their theory of total economic value. Then the key moments in the building of a framework for the assessment of ecosystems succeeded quickly:  Daily et al. (1997), Constanza et al. (1997), TEEB (2009), IPBES (2012), etc. They all helped to verbalize biodiversity conservation so that ecosystem services are today on everybody’s lips. We can now make schemes and graphs, we can monetize ES, we recognize they exist and we identify them in nature. Hence, an ecosystem service based framework is about policy integration and about the operationalization or “mainstreaming” of biodiversity conservation.

At the same time the framework is a classic case of the end justifying the means. Ecosystem services aren’t merely an instrument with the mission of protecting the world’s ecosystems. They have outrun all expectations and have gone way beyond their intended role. They now have a life of their own. They still represent a promising and safe alternative, provided we don’t lose the big picture and keep a clear sense of purposefulness. As Gretchen Daily (2009) reveals in one of her interviews, the ecosystem services approach is not necessarily that different from conventional environmentalism: “Advocates of both viewpoints believe that nature is intrinsically valuable, and they hope to preserve nature by appealing to this belief in others or, where it is absent, by creating it”.

By contrast, when the means become mistaken for the aims, it’s definitely a sign that something is wrong. “Valuing nature is central to mainstreaming conservation but it is not an end in itself” (Daily et al. 2009). Consequently we shouldn’t forget where we started from and be prepared for change when the ES approach will exhaust its potential. This may occur sooner than expected. Similarly to the “Beyond GDP” initiative, we will need to go beyond the MEA framework because no matter how high the price we put on nature, it may always be too small to encompass any other good or service that we can’t grasp at the moment with our senses or with our mind. And what if exactly these vague links, which we can’t see today, between us and nature, are the most important ones?

From a normative point of view the ecosystem service approach is utilitarian, an unexpected choice for most conservationists, but a choice nonetheless. The problem of considering this choice as given and making it explicit in just a scarce number of papers has been discussed in one of our previous blog posts on the Gardenification of nature. Thus the critiques should not be addressed to the framework itself but to the way we utilize it together with its tools. It is in our power to use an ecosystem services approach in a critical way, and make an educated choice for this approach. We should keep in mind that placing a market value on biodiversity is one of the possibilities we have, probably an effective one, but for sure not an everlasting one. Until then, the ES approach is rather a “meet you half way” type of solution, at least from the conservationists’ side.


Costanza, R. et al., 1997. The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature, vol. 387, pp. 253-260.

Daily, C.G. et al., 2009. Ecosystem services in decision making: time to deliver. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, vol. 7(1), pp. 21-28.

Daily, C.G., Ed., 1997. Nature’s Services. Island Press, Washington, DC.

Marris, E., 2009. Putting a price on nature. Nature, vol. 462, pp. 270-271.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

TEEB, 2010. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature: A synthesis of the approach, conclusions and recommendations of TEEB.



One thought on “Ecosystem services: same sky, different horizon

  1. Once thing one should be clear about is, that the assessment of ecosystem services does necessarily translate into a certain amount of money. Ecosystem services can be valuated economically but they don’t have to be. And in fact, policy makers and stakeholders do not seem to be interested so much in economic values but more in the provision of a service itself or the risks that is connected to the deterioration of a service (That’s at least the experience from the applications in the Natural Capital Project so far.)

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