Does the ecosystem services concept cause the undesirable commodification of nature?

By Joern Fischer

In a recent paper in Conservation Letters, Turnhout et al. have implied that the ecosystem services concept appears to exacerbate a narrow, market-oriented view of nature, causing the commodification of nature – and running the risk of many important aspects of living with nature being overshadowed. They argue that we should perhaps refocus our thinking away from a narrow version of ecosystem services towards a more encompassing notion of “living with nature”. This, they argue, should be considered (for example) in the new IPBES platform.

Two of my close collaborators have now written a response to Turnhout et al. (see end of this blog entry). Dave Abson and Jan Hanspach argue that Turnhout et al., in a way, got it wrong: their definition of “ecosystem services” is a narrow one that indeed implies commodification, but much literature on ecosystem services is far broader, and very open to issues such as sense of place or even spiritual fulfillment. Blaming the concept of ecosystem services, according to Abson and Hanspach, therefore is caused by having an overly narrow understanding of what this concept is or what it can do.

I only saw the original paper, and the response, once both were written and accepted. I figured I’d share my views on this discussion, because my own opinion is somewhat in between.

I agree with my colleagues that Turnhout et al. appeared to base their arguments on an overly narrow understanding of what constitutes discussions on ecosystem services. I think there is tangible evidence that, for example, many authors dealing with cultural ecosystem services have gone out of their way to argue against commodification while at the same time advocating that the ecosystem services concept, in general, can be a fruitful way to think about human-nature relationships. (Note the recent blog post on the paper by Jax et al. re: what the concept can and cannot do, in terms of describing such relationships.)

Yet, while I think Turnhout et al. relied on an overly narrow definition of what constituted the “discourse” on ecosystem services, I do believe that more fundamentally, they have a point. It is true that ecosystem services can and perhaps ought to be used to analyse human-nature relationships quite holistically.  It is true that the concept does not depend on commodification, and that it can in fact foster a more integrative understanding of human dependence on nature. But are these the truths that will be heard in political circles? Say, are these the topics that will dominate IPBES? Or, will IPBES put most of its energy in trying to generate maps of benefits and costs avoided of saving wild nature?

My sense is – though I have no means of proving this – that the political appeal of ecosystem services is indeed that it can be made to fit within market-economy thinking, i.e. a conceptual currency that modern politics does not usually question. Intellectually, ecosystem services has the potential to go much deeper, and academic journals do show that the discourse on ecosystem services regularly does go much deeper. But will this potential be realized in the politics-science interface?

I agree with Turnhout et al. that it would be good if IPBES will make a big effort to wholeheartedly “market” a broad understanding of ecosystem services to politicians. I see few problems with the ecosystem services concept as such, but I do sympathise that in its implementation in real-world politics, there is a risk that many of the important non-monetary aspects of ecosystem services might get lost.

The response is available here: Turnhout response_Abson_Hanspach_2013_06_26

4 thoughts on “Does the ecosystem services concept cause the undesirable commodification of nature?

  1. Pingback: New Publication: Crossdisciplinary research contributions to the United Kingdom′s National Ecosystem Assessment | rickylawton

  2. Pingback: Technocratic and economic ideals in the ecosystem services discourse | Ideas for Sustainability

  3. Pingback: Remarks to the World Food Prize Panel on “Stakeholders & synergies: Socio-economic dimensions of sustainable ag” | AgroEcoPeople

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