Ecosystems valuation; colliding notions of things

In a recent article for the Guardian, George Monbiot argued that the idea of ‘ecosystems services’ is a prelude to the privatization of nature.

It didn’t take long for Robert Costanza, who has forwarded the idea of ‘ecosystem services valuation’ as a way to protect hitherto unvalued aspects of nature, to respond with this article (along with colleagues Simone Quatrini and Sive Oystese).

What are ecosystem services?

Generally speaking, and especially since the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, ‘ecosystem services’ include all of the things that the Earth and its component parts and processes get up to that support human well-being. Examples would include the purification of water performed by some wetlands, waste assimilation, these sorts of things.

So that is what ecosystems services are. And, in general, these services are in decline. So a key question is: how to prevent their degradation?

A few years ago some of my former colleagues at McGill published a paper titled “The environmentalists paradox: why is human well-being increasing as ecosystem services degrade?” Their paper, which appeared in Bioscience, can be read here (pdf). Their terminology is a little imprecise; they are really probing the assumption that ecosystem services are linked to human well-being such that if the former suffers, so does the latter. Many environmentalists (i.e. envr. ethicists) already have their own theories on this, of course, but that is a different topic…perhaps one to write more on later.

These issues notwithstanding, one of the solutions to preventing the degradation of ecosystem services is to find ways to value them. Often this has taken the form of valuing them in market terms. Such as, for instance, calculating how much it would cost for us to produce the same benefits we now receive from a healthy wetland or watershed. Once we know how much it would cost us to do what a wetland or watershed does, then we have a ballpark for valuing the services it provides.

One of the concerns that people like Monbiot appear to have, is that ‘ecosystem services’ represent a way to enclose the value provided by a watershed (or some other resource ‘unit’ like a forest or bioregion) in a way that gets an increasing share of the Earth’s things and processes into the global economy. This is not uniformly the case, as Jessica Dempsey and Morgan Robertson argue in their new paper.

But not “uniformly the case” does not mean that it can’t happen. So there appears to be some room between the views of Monbiot and Costanza. There is certainly room to carefully consider whether the valuation of ‘ecosystem services’ is functionally dissimilar to the valuation of more discrete parts of the total environment – those things we like to call ‘natural resources’.

Furthermore, this is a political and ethical kind of dilemma, since it asks us to position ourselves, the world of things around us and the interactions of those things that have nothing to do with us in a particular sort of relation. But that relation cannot be determined apart from what sorts of things we are asked to consider. So there is a sense in which we entangled with our own ideas of what things matter and on what temporal and spatial scale. This anthropocentric assumption is one that I’ve been uncomfortable with for awhile. For instance, if we are to value a watershed then we need some semblance of the scale of the services that a watershed provides both spatially and temporally. In this sense, once we consider a watershed as an object, we are caught up with that object in particular ways.

Maybe that is too philosophical for some. But if you are interested there are some interesting thoughts on our relationship to things, and what (surprise!) the relationships of things amongst themselves might look like here and here. A good introduction is Tim Morton’s book, Ecology without nature.

More practically, it is hard to avoid normative implications once you make the move from acknowledging ‘ecosystem services’ to valuing them. And it is not just because ‘valuing’ is a normative category (since different folks argue there are ways around that problem). Rather, it is because ‘ecosystem services valuation‘ brings out the implicit environmental politic that sets us in relation to the world, and its things thereof, that we inhabit.

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