Technocratic and economic ideals in the ecosystem services discourse


A while ago we had a post on this blog about a paper by Turnhout et al. and a response by Dave Abson and me in Conservation Letters. The original paper critically assessed that the current biodiversity discourse is turning into a discourse around ecosystem services and that this, in turn, is causing the monetization and commodification of nature. We had responded that conceptually, ecosystem services by no means are bound to monetization or commodification. Rather, we argued that the ecosystem services concept was open to a broad set of normative frameworks and value systems. Now, Conservation Letters has published a response by Turnhout et al. to our response.

In their response, Turnhout et al. clarified that their main point was not that there were no alternative framings and valuations available, but that the mainstream implementation of the ecosystem services concept appeared to converge towards economic and technocratic aspects. This domination of a fairly narrow interpretation of ecosystem services is indeed concerning, and I am glad that the authors took the chance to make this point once again. Personally, I find their message clearer in the response, and I find their overall concern justified and convincing.

On re-reading the papers, one point that I really liked in the original publication comes to my mind again. And that is that natural scientists often understand themselve as objective producers of knowledge, which conservation managers or policy makers can then easily turn into useful policies. As Turnhout et al. put it in their original paper “that obtaining more knowledge and distributing this knowledge more effectively … are viewed as solutions to address the lack of effective action to conserve biodiversity.As I tried to illustrate in a past post (and as Turnhout et al. write): this kind of self-perception of natural (conservation) scientists is in the best case naive and in the worst counter-productive.

Overall, I think these issues are part of an important debate – I hope others find it useful, too.

5 thoughts on “Technocratic and economic ideals in the ecosystem services discourse

  1. I tend to agree that any proposal that resorts to market mechanisms as a means for environmental protections fundamentally misunderstands the notion of the environment as the ultimate public good.

  2. Yes, I agree and that matches with one of the statements from Turnhout et al.’s response: “As with all assessments that use proxies and indicators to express value, the inevitable risk is that the proxies and indicators come to stand for and substitute the thing that is actually valued.”

  3. Pingback: New paper: Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability | Ideas for Sustainability

  4. Pingback: Inclusive conservation? | Ideas for Sustainability

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