Prioritize the consideration of ecological scale and fair distribution over valuing nature

by: Matthias Schröter1, Bas Amelung1, Anne Böhnke-Henrichs1, Alexander P.E. van Oudenhoven1, Klara H. Stumpf2, Jacqueline Loos3

Several authors call for concern about using economic valuation of ecosystem services for biodiversity conservation, such as this recent piece in Science. In today´s blog post, we would like to emphasize that valuation of ecosystem services is only one of the many facets that could be considered for biodiversity conservation and sustainability:

It is important to distinguish between the ecosystem services concept, biophysical or socio-cultural assessment of services, economic valuation, and related policy instruments. Valuing services can contribute to slowing down ecosystem degradation. Unfortunately, economic valuation is often used beyond its reasonable scope.

Costa Rica

Cloudforest restoration project in Costa Rica: Ecological limits need to be set before valuation can be meaningfully applied


We relate the limits and opportunities of ecosystem services assessment and valuation to three hierarchical goals of sustainability, which Herman Daly in a seminal paper has sketched: ecological scale, fair distribution and allocative efficiency. Lacking enforcement of ecological scales in market systems leads to crossing planetary boundaries. Hence, first, the scale of permissible human activities needs to be established within ecological limits. This involves societal choice on the extent of conservation and sustainable ecosystem use. Decision making can benefit from assessments that determine the carrying capacity of ecosystems, but there is no role for economic valuation in determining ecological limits. Second, access to services is often distributed unequally, as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has already pointed out. Societies need to determine a fair intra- and intergenerational distribution of natural resources. This could be done by developing social capital, including rules and norms to manage local commons. Policy instruments should establish fair benefit and burden sharing of conservation and sustainable ecosystem use, while ensuring participation of all stakeholders. Ecosystem service assessments can reveal spatial and temporal service flows and assist in establishing policy instruments. In third place only, once scales are established and fair distribution is achieved, resources can be efficiently allocated to their best societal use to prevent wasting scarce resources. This could be assisted by ecosystem service valuation. Ecosystem service assessments, but not necessarily valuation, can thus contribute to achieving sustainability. If conceptual synergies with the ecosystem services concept are recognized, biodiversity conservation can thus be supported, even though not all reasons one may have for conservation are captured by the anthropocentric concept of ecosystem services.


1 Environmental Systems Analysis Group, Wageningen University, 6700AA Wageningen, The Netherlands
2Institute of Sustainability Governance, Leuphana University, Lüneburg, 21335 Lüneburg, Germany
3Institute of Ecology, Leuphana University, Lüneburg, 21335 Lüneburg, Germany


3 thoughts on “Prioritize the consideration of ecological scale and fair distribution over valuing nature

  1. Hi,

    thanks a very intereting post (it is always nice to see Herman Daily being quoted!)… I have one question and one comment.
    Question: If the second stage (after identifying the ecological carrying capacity) is to “establish fair benefit and burden sharing of conservation and sustainable ecosystem use”, and only after this stage are enonomic valuations considered, what metric should be used to assess this “benefit and burden sharing”?

    Comment. What I find missing slightly is the normative component, at what stage do we consider what we want from our interactions with the environment? Why, for example, should we privilage efficient allocation? to what end do we want efficent allocation? I think we have to start with a clear and explict defintion of our goals and only then consider how we might use the ecosystem services concept in moving towards those goals.


  2. Hi Dave, Thanks for your interesting question and comment. Fair benefit and burden sharing actually not only, but also refers to the use of natural resources/interaction with nature, but is also linked to fair distribution of income. In that sense we wanted to point out that monetary valuation of ecosystem services is problematic if “ability to pay” is not taken into account. The metric you ask for could be biophysical or socio-cultural, and relate to needs, wants and capabilities (see the work of Felix Rauschmayer for instance). This information could inform deliberative processes.
    The normative component, as I see it, is that we put sustainability as an overarching goal here. Set the scale of the human entreprise, make a choice about which generation gets what, and only then think of efficient allocation. I think that the latter has its benefits, to guide the in principle free choices that people make. Replace “guide” by “correct and steer” to avoid negative externalities. The end/goal of allocation would be to allow for a maximum of freedom of choice, but to also prevent wasteful use of resources.

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