Can Nature’s Value Alone Save Nature?


You cannot read about conservation these days and not notice the astonishing zeal for ecosystem services as a new conservation strategy. (The February 2009 special issue of the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment is a good case in point, although it’s not online yet.)

The idea behind ecosystem services is simple — nature provides many benefits to people “for free,” and if nature got economic credit for these benefits then we would not be so quick to convert habitats for houses, plantations, roads and so forth.

The ecology and biology underlying this idea are often fascinating. For example:

Ecosystem services is also catching on with governments around the world. I serve on a scientific task force in China whose purpose is to help the Chinese government factor ecosystem services into ALL development decisions as part of their 12th five-year plan. The USDA just created an ecosystem services office. I could go on and on building a case that ecosystem services represent a new dawn for conservation.

But let’s also face some hard facts. External market forces and short-term profits will often win out over the most comprehensive ecosystem service valuation.

A well-known study by WWF’s Taylor Ricketts documents the value of forest patches as a source of pollinators and therefore higher yields on coffee plantations. However, the coffee plantation that Ricketts studied, Finca Santa Fe, has since been converted to a pineapple plantation, and none of the forest’s value as a source of coffee pollinators now matters in the least.

Here’s another unpleasant example: Forest hardwood wetlands in southeastern United States are reported in the literature to have a value of $35,000 per acre. That high value came from a study of a specific patch of hardwood wetland in Louisiana neighboring a potato chip factory.

That potato chip factory used the wetland to treat its wastewater and was therefore able to lower its water treatment costs by $215,000 per year – and because the wetland was six acres, that yields a value of $35,000 acre.

But the potato chip factory was so successful that the volume of wastewater increased and the wetland could no longer be used. Does this mean the wetland suddenly had zero economic value?

The point is that economic forces such as the price of beef, the price of palm oil, or the price of other crops will continue to drive land use in ways that are likely to override any ecosystem service valuation.

Some of this valuation can be adjusted if government regulations provide leverage and incentives. But more generally, while ecosystems services can help make our cost-benefit analyses more rational, a strong sustainability ethic is also needed to really change the way the world values nature’s benefits.

Without a premium given to benefits for future generations, the desire to make a quick buck will too commonly outweigh even the most exhaustive ecosystem service invoice.

(Image: Deforested area for agricultural use, Mato Grasso state, Brazil. Credit: Leoffreitas, under a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Glad to see ecosystem services is being discussed with a more critical eye. In the mid-to-late ’90’s in the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office (a commission in the Governor’s Office), we used the term in the context of post-oil spill natural resource damage assessments, but the services term was not only used to refer to a monetary advantage to mankind. We also considered ‘services’ to wildlife, air/water quality, aesthetics… now it’s much harder to quantify those classes of services, but we felt it it was important to include them in considering the extent of restoration that would be required of the responsible party.

  2. A great, insightful post. Among his many salient points, Kareiva makes a particularly insightful one near the end:

    “But more generally, while ecosystems services can help make our cost-benefit analyses more rational, a strong sustainability ethic is also needed to really change the way the world values nature’s benefits.”

    More often than we should, we consider conservation science in the abstract, divorcing “science” from the world in which the things we study exist. Putting a value on natural systems, for example, without building a “strong sustainability ethic” may yield little.

    This point suggests that we all need to do more to unite biologists and ecologists, lobbyists and policy wonks and PR experts and marketers into one, coordinated team, each contributing their individual expertise to advance long-term, sustainable conservation objectives.

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