By Joern Fischer
Like few other concepts, the concept of ecosystem services has captured the attention of scholars, conservationists, resource managers and policy makers. It has also facilitated integration across academic disciplines, especially ecology and economics.
Despite these successes, some remain critical of the ecosystem services concept, most importantly because they fear it may foster the commodification of nature (McCauley 2006); instead of appreciating nature for its inherent values. Opinions often appear to be divided – some researchers are strongly in favor of the ecosystem services concept, including monetary valuation, whereas some are strongly against it for “ethical reasons”.
Many leading researchers on ecosystem services have recognized for a long time that the situation is more complex than this. A polarized view of commodification versus ethics is neither helpful, nor does it in fact represent the more nuanced thinking by many leading researchers. Yet, a problem is that such nuanced thinking has rarely been effectively articulated to date.
This is why I would like to recommend the new paper by Jax et al. in Ecological Economics. It very nicely steps readers through different ethical considerations that are relevant for the ecosystem services concept, without oversimplifying the challenges, and without advocating a single “correct” way forward. Instead, Jax et al. appeal for a pluralistic approach to ecosystem services that involves many perspectives and stakeholders. By clearly articulating the goal and value dimensions of a given application of the ecosystem services concept, they argue, many of the potential ethical pitfalls of the ecosystem services concept can be avoided. They conclude (among others) that the “ecosystem services concept neither necessarily excludes the consideration of other economic values nor does it capture the whole array of values which people connect with nature”. Simple as this may be, the argument by Jax et al. is based on a nicely accessible review of relevant ethical principles.
This paper will be useful to many readers – and for natural scientists and economists not deeply familiar with ethics, it provides an excellent overview of relevant considerations. Given a general paucity of work on the nexus of ethics and ecosystem services – but an obvious need for such work – I find this a must-read for anyone working on ecosystem services.