Tons of ink — virtual and literal — have been spilled (spent?) on the term “ecosystem services,” its meaning, its potential, its value (rhetorically and economically). The original premise, as far as I understand it, is that we can’t easily manage that which we don’t value, and we can’t (at a large scale) value what we haven’t measured.

Thus, the cottage industry of analyzing the monetary values (usually) of various “services” provided to us by natural systems. Once we realize that we are running down our “natural capital,” we can begin to wisely manage it, goes the theory. After all, economics is the science of scarcity, no?

Well, I would say “no” to that last sentence in any case, but that isn’t even where the problem comes in. Consciously or not, I think many of the formulators and promoters of ecosystem services have perhaps taken market capitalism’s view of itself at face value. That is, one of capitalism’s many virtues is supposedly balancing supply and demand based on the cost of producing certain things, and the collective willingness to buy them at various prices. So if we can “get the prices right” we can create incentives for environmentally beneficial actions and systems, because people will see the value of natural ecosystems, and the dollar amounts we’re losing with various activities, and the system will come to a more appropriate balance, where we’re not tearing down our house to get materials to build an extension to it. (That is, so we won’t be expending our natural capital on further denuding and destructive ventures, but rather finding a way to balance the ability of “nature” to provide things we like, love, and need with the rate and type of things that can be provided indefinitely.) Richard Norgaard wrote a fantastic critical analysis of some key premises of ecosystem services a while back, while Vatn and Bromley emphasized that we can make “Choices without prices without apologies,” and Richard Wilk has some interesting things to say about the dynamics of supposedly renewable and non-renewable resources. But leaving aside these detailed critiques, let’s go back to the simple starting premise: if we know the value of ecosystem services, we can appropriately incorporate these values into our economic systems.

This seems like a simple misapprehension of, as I say, how capitalism actually works, and how it says it works. For example, studies in soccer (football) have led to some fairly compelling evidence that soccer team owners are essentially willing to pay a cost for racism (whether subtle/institutional/unconsciously or intentionally/consciously) because minority players are not recruited, paid, and retained commensurate with what they add to the teams they’re on. More to the point, it is clear that slavery did not persist as long as it did simply because slaves and slaveowners didn’t appreciate the price of slavery; women weren’t denied the vote and legal equality, and aren’t paid commensurate with men in many cases, not because markets don’t exist that could (in theory) accurately gauge their market value, but because of biases, the benefits to, and the power of certain people with biases and getting benefits to maintain such a system that incorporates them.

In other words, although folks like economist Noah Smith seem to increasingly be recognizing that there is life (and reality) beyond the realm of modern orthodox economics, there is still a skepticism that the raw workings of power are really a major factor “distorting” economic systems. But it would seem both no coincidence and not an exception that many people remain poor (or are made poor, i.e. “development” may cause “underdevelopment”) despite the fact that the vast majority would clearly desire not to be, and clearly would “pay” for a better quality of life if they had the means to.

And there’s the rub, no? The market allocation idea, insofar as it works, seems to only work if people (or other entities) have the resources to evince their demand. We can expand this beyond the market and say that, insofar as equality across groups and based on merit occurs, it seems to be when marginalized groups have the (sociopolitical) power to evince their demands. In economics, how much you can pay for what you want is “effective demand.” If you have zero dollars, then you have zero economic demand for food, all things being equal, no matter how much you want it.

So where does this leave us for ecosystems? Are they devalued, denuded, and destroyed because we didn’t realize they were valuable? With an exact price, can we better conserve them?

Ah, well, of course, we need markets to do that. Okay, so if we create markets, can that happen? Well…. let’s just say that the “markets” for slaves didn’t work so well at providing freedom, no matter how much the enslaved wanted it. The raw workings of power (which includes, but is not limited to money) made sure that slavery lasted despite the sincere desires of the enslaved to not be so. One imagines that if “true” markets for freedom had been established, that is, where any slave could buy their freedom, that still would not have provided a morally satisfactory result — e.g., the end of slavery — for a large number of real-world reasons.

What I’m trying to point out by evoking the powerful spectre of slavery, happily extinct as a large-scale institution in much, but hardly all, of the world, is that even having a market isn’t empirically enough to provide sincerely desired goods. As hard as it was for enslaved peoples and abolitionist allies to gain universal statutory freedom (de facto equality and freedom had another century or so to go in the U.S.), how much harder will it be for non-human actors — ecosystems — to achieve a right to life? A right to exist? They are paid, directly, nothing, and cannot demand pay in return for their value. Slaves were unequivocally providing immense economic value, but lacked not only the resources but the power to demand freedom, much less fair working conditions, and fair pay (in significant part because of barriers to collective action–which is to say, I’m not saying slaves were powerless to resist, or that they did not do so in important fashions). It required a major sociopolitical shift in the U.S. to end legal slavery; it required years and further shifts to end legalized discrimination and exploitation.

In what possible world is adding $ signs to the value of nature going to change the raw workings of power such that those profiting from environmental destruction will simply decide to make less profit?

It is not that the concept has no value, and certainly not that changing our current systems has no hope. It’s that I don’t know that we can reasonably hope that the reason for our environmental problems is inadequate market signs of value, rather than the sociopolitical power some have to maintain this system, and therefore we cannot reasonably hope that “appropriate” valuation of environmental problems and services will significantly convince, coerce, or co-opt those currently benefitting the most into change.

There are many ways to change the actions, limits, and distribution of power. Academic declarations and elucidations of the market economic value of ecosystems, say, without socio-political will, organizing, collective action, and persistence to change our governing systems isn’t… well, it isn’t worth the paper (much less the computer screen) it’s written on. (And if you want my opinion on academics saying “that’s not my department” and leaving all that wholly to others, see two posts ago.)

14 thoughts

  1. This is great! I’m giving a presentation on Biodiversity/Ecosystem Services in a class next week! I’m glad to have have your perspective and the opportunity to incorporate it, some great discussion questions to stir up the pot!

  2. Clearly there are a lot of issues with the _valuation_ of ecosystem services, I’d certainly agree with that, but the notion that the natural world underpins our societies is surely not controversial? The problem that I see is how we get that message across to governments, businesses, and the public. Monetary valuation is one way, but it’s not the only way.

    I’m not convinced that the slavery analogy, as you frame it, is very helpful here. Yes, slaves were not free to make their own choices, and yes they were badly exploited; but any slave owner who over-exploited their slaves to the point where the slaves could not function was soon going to find that their profits dropped very sharply. That’s surely a better analogy for over-exploitation of the natural world? Ecosystem services are not about giving rights to the natural world.

    Here’s a few old posts that explore some of the issues:

  3. I continue to think the slavery analogy is apt, though considering the main comments on it I’ve received have misunderstood what I meant by it, that may be a reflection of my being incorrect in thinking so!

    There are two points I’d make in response to your comments (thanks for them, by the way!):
    (1) Many owners *clearly* over-exploited their slaves to a point where they could not function. There are at least two elements converge on this being a not-uncommon occurrence.
    (a) The “cheapness” of slaves made it “economical enough” in some cases ( ; ; ; my understanding was that it was most common on sugar plantations in the West Indies). As a matter of empirical evidence, there is at least a plausible basis of evidence that mistreating your slaves into ‘local extinction’ was not uncommon. How parallel this is to working ecosystems into local extinction is a matter of debate, but given that we can still ‘import’ replacements into many systems for the time being, there are parallels; points (b) & (c) will indicate why the idea is not dependent on the strength of this part of the analogy.
    (b) The studies I linked to from football (soccer) just scratch the surface of the idea that people are willing/able to make “unprofitable” choices to further their discrimination/biases. The idea that people won’t abuse a resource until it’s gone because then they would cease to profit is belied by the fact that people and companies *have done* this. The “irrational exuberance” of recent market bubbles are just one example. Various other crashes, including the “tulip crash,” indicate that there is no necessary reason people will act with forbearance towards a limited resource, even when they could reasonably be expected to know that said resource is limited. While this piece ( is not the perfect illustration, it does elaborate on Keynes’s ideas of “animal spirits” in a somewhat more formal way, in other words, the fact that people do not act according to simple profit/risk rationality, which I’d think is uncontroversial. In other words, there is ample reason to think that people will, do, and did take advantage of people, and ecosystems, beyond what would be reasonable or profitable, and that this was not simply due to an ignorance of the risks or profitability of the situation.

    With further regards to slaves — and possibly ecosystems — there are many social elements that should not be ignored. One element was that it was repeatedly necessary for slaveowners to “prove” to themselves, and slaves both, that the slaves’ worth was subhuman and subject to capricious retribution. Showing how little one valued their well-being or value helped make the existence of the institution, and its abuses, more emotionally palatable, and helped continue intimidimation to try to prevent slave uprisings.

    (2) My point in making the parallel is that *in neither case is the system ‘self-righting’*. Slavery and discrimination have declined in significant part because of the active participation of slaves and marginalized communities in demanding their place at the table. My argument, at its core, is that ecosystem service valuation misses this element of agitation and demands. It is not that valuation cannot be part of making demands for change, but rather that showing economic valuation is completely insufficient to motivate those changes. Imagine a situation where a study backed by all prominent experts at the time showed that slavery was actually less profitable than the alternatives in 1850. I cannot imagine any amount of well-validated proof would have been definitive in changing the minds of most slaveholders and the politicians who supported them (and were supported by them). That study may have helped those lobbying for change, but clearly such a study was not necessary for the end of slavery, and it is unclear how much it would have helped the cause — or helped it better than, say, alternatively spending those resources on organizing groups opposing slavery on existing grounds instead of funding such a theoretical study.

    Imagine further that the study didn’t show that an alternative would be *more profitable to the slaveholders*, but rather, would likely have immense costs for them, but would be profitable for society as a whole — including the former slaves. I can hardly see that helping move the political calculus of the day very much, because those who had the most to lose — the slaveowners — also had a disproportionate amount of political power, and the biases of everyone would make them skeptical of “society being better off on the whole.” Again, the point is not that such a study would be useless, but rather that its value in and of itself is unclear; its necessity to change things is certainly very doubtful (given that it wasn’t in fact necessary; whether it would have helped more than the real counterfactual is unresolvable); and that in either case, the changes were not due to changing calculus of profits, but due to organized political demands.

    Without acknowleding power inequalities among sociopolitical actors, and the fact that organization, opposition, and agitation by (human) sociopolitical actors is/was/will be at the heart of sociopolitical change, change is goign to be forestalled. Ecosystem services can be a tool, but political activities are the key, and whether or not monetary ES is a particularly helpful tool in such activities is questionable. At the same time, many scientists absent themselves from the political part, when (I would argue) the evidence is clear that that part is the most effective — especially when we think to organizing and public involvement in communities of change, not just writing to congressfolk and the like.

    Need to run, but these latter points were covered in a previous blog….

    1. Thanks for responding, there’s an awful lot to digest here which is going to take me a while! However I wanted to comment briefly on your final paragraph. It very much depends upon what we consider “sociopolitical action” to be. When a scientist publishes a study of ecosystem services s/he is not just taking part in science, s/he is taking part in society as a whole, these are not separate spheres. The extent to which any piece of scientific work is acknowledged and acted upon by, or influences, society as a whole (including politicians) of course depends upon a whole range of factors, including media attention via press releases, blogging, Twitter, etc.

      That being the case, it’s also not necessarily true that the most effective change comes about directly through public agitation, organisation, opposition, etc. Important though these are, there are lots of examples of changes that have been made to laws and policies by governments that have been largely independent of public opinion, and instead rooted in evidence from research. These include banning thalidomide and DDT, changes to the laws around tobacco and alcohol advertising, banning smoking in pubs and restaurants, legal requirements for seat belts, landfill taxes, recycling policies, any number of health initiatives, etc., etc. Clearly many of these issues had special interest pressure groups behind them, but they did not attract the kind of “organization, opposition, and agitation” which I think you are referring to (i.e. mass demonstrations on the streets of major cities).

      Getting back to ecosystem services, I do recommend that you read the Tony Juniper book because it’s full of examples of small and large companies, and local communities and governments, acting in ways that conserve the environment because they see an advantage, financial and/or social.

  4. I’ll take a look at Juniper, though I would argue that “because they see an advantage…” is a vast oversimplification. As are the “changes that have been made to laws and policies by governments that have been largely independent of public opinion, and instead rooted in evidence from research.” I don’t think these took place independent of scientific evidence, but I also don’t think they took place “largely independent of public opinion.” I would be very interested in the peer-reviewed literature concluding as such. Which comes to one of my issues with the way ES are used by some people: with very little regards to any literature (peer-reviewed or even narrative from politically involved actors) on how political change happens. I’ve made it something of a point to study policy and socio-political change, and I would say the peer-reviewed evidence that “publish[ing] a study of ecosystem services” is a very effective way to lead to change is extraordinarily weak. Might it be a key element? Yes. Is it an incremental contribution, just like any other action? Yes. Does its contribution correspond in importance for change with what many scientists perceive? Very likely not. Is it sometimes or often irrelevant? Probably. Are there alternative ways to contribute, or amplify that contribution? Definitely.

    I largely align with Paul Cairney’s approach, research, and advice: “Scientists have a stark choice: to produce information and accept that it will have a limited impact (but that scientists will maintain an often-useful image of objectivity), or to go beyond one’s comfort zone, and expertise, to engage in a normative enterprise that can increase impact at the expense of objectivity.”

    And when I refer to “organization, opposition, and agitation,” I include “mass demonstrations on the streets of major cities” but that is hardly the epitomization of what I’m talking about. Being involved in local community efforts, personally working to connect disparate community groups, donating to/attending/advising existing national and international social movement groups, and valuing/spending time on public outreach with one’s research are all valuable. Advising participatory processes. And on.

    I discuss some elements of that here: And my colleague Garrett Graddy-Lovelace and I are working on a larger piece called “The Extension of Everything” further highlighting some things we think are necessary and called for.

    But long and short, I think ES makes a difference mostly insofar as it is integrated with community efforts, voices, and advocacy. When you point to victories that took place due to advocacy but not public opinion, I point to the key role of not just “special interest groups” but such groups’ understandings of the ideas Cairney discusses, plus long-term dynamics to which public opinion is hardly irrelevant. (Softening public opposition — like around anti-smoking laws — are as important as growing public support.) The late Judith Layzer’s work explored these dynamics as well (

    ES is a fine tool. But I don’t think it can or should be used in absence of a larger understanding of sociopolitical change based on the lived experiences of “special interest”/movement leaders, and importantly, an understanding of peer-reviewed literature not on just economics or social policy, but rather *sociopolitical change*. I have only rarely glimpsed any reference to or awareness of the rather voluminous pertinent literature. And considering the scale of change needed, I personally rather think an education in the literature around *radical* change is important, but I’m willing to start with common grounding in the broader literature. I contend that work in ES that is not fluent in social science of political change is as problematic as conservation policy research not fluent in the biology of conservation.

    1. “I also don’t think they took place “largely independent of public opinion.” I would be very interested in the peer-reviewed literature concluding as such.”

      I’m not sure that such exists, it would be interesting to know, I agree. My impression is formed from being an interested observer of these events. Those impressions may be wrong, I accept, but I certainly don’t recall seeing mass demonstrations, or even much local activism, on issues such as recycling, landfill tax, seat belts, etc. In contrast, in the UK, there’s been some very effect activism on issues like fox hunting, but much less effective activism on issues such as the Iraq War, nuclear policy, and so forth. So I suppose that my conclusion is that change can come with and without activism, and that activism itself is not enough for change.

      “I would say the peer-reviewed evidence that “publish[ing] a study of ecosystem services” is a very effective way to lead to change is extraordinarily weak.”

      Yes, I agree, and that’s really not what I meant. I was simply making the point that producing science is a sociopolitical act in and of itself. One study is not likely to make any difference (as you say). But a whole body of work can result in change, or at least the beginnings of change, as we saw recently with the work on neonicotinoid pesticides. Speaking of which, this might interest you:

      “ES is a fine tool. But I don’t think it can or should be used in absence of a larger understanding of sociopolitical change”

      There seems to be a contradiction here between your view of ES as a “fine tool” and a “possible folly” 🙂 But, regardless, I’d certainly agree with this statement, and so I certainly do a lot of public outreach (lectures to special interest groups, advisory work, etc.) that tries to bring the ideas of ecosystem services (and particualrly animal pollination) to a wider audience. In some cases that has resulted in change, e.g. to local initiatives around habitat management, community gardens, etc. These are small, incremental changes, but important I think in their modest way.

      The other thing we’ve not mentioned, of course, is IPBES – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Social change is a significant factor in quite a lot of what it is currently doing and plans to do in the future. Only time will tell how successful it has been.

      Thanks for all the links, I’ll have to follow them up.

      1. Great points — I’ll try not to belabor this as I know there are many things on both our lists to do beyond this interesting exchange!

        Re: your blog post: “Whilst I agree that there is a difficult line to walk between scientist as campaigner and scientist as neutral presenter of facts, I also think that polemicist/activist is quite an admirable position for a scientist to take in many ways, as long as the rhetoric is backed up by sound science. It’s also brave given that perceptions of scientists can change the likelihood of their research being funded or even published – reviews and reviewers are rarely as objective as we would like to believe.” — very much agreed. I also think that, arguably, it is somewhat unethical to *not* be an advocate (pondering whether an advocate is different than an activist is an exercise for another time), as I believe being an advocate for policies you believe in is an ethical duty for all citizens of democracies, and as Nelson and Vucetich point out, it would be illogical for scientists to have a lesser responsibility for this rather than an equal or greater one.

        Re: “fine tool” vs. “possible folly” — you got me being over-conciliatory! But the point I’ve been grasping toward is that it’s a fine tool alongside sociopolitical agitation–in the broader sense, not solely protesting–but folly to depend on as a “self-executing tool.”

        On the various examples you discuss of activism/agitation, again, I’m taking a broad view of activism–and I commend your activities as exactly the type of thing I’d like far more of us, including me, to be doing more often!–and also the long view. Recycling and seat belts are certainly examples around which there seems likely to be some literature — and seat belt laws clearly present a “Multiple Streams Analysis” type timeline ( where many attempts at passage & implementation are tried before they “take.” Activism around Iraq is an interesting case, as I think it certainly did cause electoral impacts in the U.S., and changed the on-going actions in the war, even though it did not (clearly) prevent the invasion. Though in the context of our conversation, I would say that activism had at least as much effect, if not greater, as the “research findings” (best guesses on Iraq’s nuclear status). Or really, they co-occurred in a hard-to-separate way.

        But a last two points I’d want to make is (a) to reiterate that far from all social action is protests, mass demonstrations, etc., and what I’m including is “organizing” — which might include organizing a special interest group rather than a protest or rally. I believe a larger view of organizing and agitation is necessary–including, for example, group strategizing, which was vital in the US Civil Rights Movement. Protests alone weren’t the linchpin of the movement; very strategic, and arguably mercenary decisions were made on which protests to support, and how, and with whom. (Rosa Parks was not the first to refuse to give up her seat; she was, rightly or wrongly, viewed as a better symbol than the first person arrested resisting bus segregation in Alabama, Claudette Colvin. I don’t think we necessarily need more protests; we certainly do need more *organization*, and hence strategy, and hence, time spent by academics and others as activists in order to organize and strategically agitate, suggest, push, pull, etc.
        (b) Unlike many struggles for change that I would consider “one-offs,” valuing ecosystems directly challenges a huge amount of the status quo and will therefore require, to my mind, unprecedented organization, agitation, and mobilization–again, with protests and on-the-streets activism being only a single part of the grand traditions and mechanisms of social change, and only part of being part of or advancing movements. When the costs of internalizing ecosystem services may rival their supposed market value, the idea that we can incorporate “proper costs” without major activism seems…. dubious to me. Challenging infinite growth and free-lunch approaches poses as fundamental a shift as, at the least, ending slavery–hence another element of my comparison. A whole way of doing things across many industries simply cannot go on as it has. The idea that pointing out seemingly profitable businesses are, in many cases, net destroyers of value can, in many/most cases, compel those profiting (and their employees, and their governments) to change course to something inevitably less profitable is the folly I was trying to point to. Because it seems to me that either ES’s imply major shifts across many industries, or they simply aren’t necessary, because I think minor shifts are possible without them.

  5. Thanks Jahi, I’ve just watched the video of your lecture and it’s nice to put a face to the name. I’ve also just realised that you are at Coventry which is just down the road from us here at Northampton. It would be great to have you come down to give a seminar and chat with our group about ecosystem services, food security, and related issues. As well as the ecological work we do we have one postgrad who is working on the economic impacts of solar farming and another who is about to start work on biodiversity and food production in community gardens.

    1. That would be fantastic! I’ve only been here in Coventry for two months. Would be very pleased to come by Northampton some time and chat with your group. I’ve much admired your work and your blog posts for a time now. And biodiversity & food production in community gardens is definitely a line of work I have a lot of interest in; I pursued some work in that vein while I was at Washington State with my former student James Moore (who commented here above); his M.S. thesis was a clever combination of qualitative interview analysis with biodiversity sampling.

      Perhaps some time early in 2017?

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