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.)