Ecosystem services: a critical definition

August 16, 2017 | Autor: Jessica Dempsey | Categoria: Human Geography, Physical Geography, Ecosystem Services
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ECOSYSTEM SERVICES Jessica Dempsey School of Environmental Studies University of Victoria [email protected] Accepted for publication in The International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment, and Technology (Wiley-Blackwell). Abstract Ecosystem services, commonly defined as the benefits provided by ecosystems to humans, are an increasingly dominant approach to ordering and organizing human and nonhuman (or ecosystemic) relations, setting norms for the management and governance of socioecologies. The ‘ecosystem services revolution’ aims to make visible and ideally quantifiable the often underappreciated and undervalued ecological structures and processes necessary for human life on earth. While the concept is becoming central to environmental governance, some academics (including geographers and ecologists) contest this turn, along with some environmental, Indigenous and social justice activists. Main Text Ecosystem services, commonly defined as the benefits provided by ecosystems to humans, are an increasingly dominant way of conceptualizing relationships between humans and ecosystems. Many advocating this approach argue that focusing on the benefits that ecosystems provide to people will enlist more individuals and institutions in the conservation of biodiversity, and in the project of environmentalism. By focusing on changes in ecosystem services and, ideally, economically valuing them, the argument is that decision-makers (i.e. governments, consumers, businesses) will make more sustainable and economically efficient decisions. For example, by calculating ecosystem services provided by a forest – including water purification services and carbon sequestration – those responsible for decisions about that particular forest will be able to better weigh the ‘trade-offs’ between different courses of action, between, for example, approving or rejecting a new soya plantation. Such calculations also prepare the ground for policy options that can facilitate payments between humans that ‘provide’ or ‘secure’ ecosystem service delivery to those who ‘consume’ them. The ‘ecosystem services revolution’, then, aims to make visible and ideally quantifiable the often underappreciated and undervalued ecological structures and processes necessary for human life on earth. While sometimes oriented towards the production of new markets and commodities, ecosystem services are always matters of calculation, of creating qualitative distinctions in ecosystems (i.e. categories and classifications), differences that can be evaluated quantitatively. The point of this calculability is to organize ecosystems in ways that can render what they do for humans (i.e. the services they produce) equivalent and comparable, with the hope that these quantitative abstractions will incite sustainable and efficient decisions. This is by no means easy, demonstrated by three decades of conceptual and calculative debate on economic valuation of ecosystems. Ecosystem services are not simply a new name for what ecologists have always studied, but rather are an increasingly dominant approach to ordering and organizing human and nonhuman (or ecosystemic) relations, setting norms for the management and governance of socioecologies. Ecosystem services must be seen as political, an approach that increasingly defines what is of value, contributing to the production of present and future natures. As with many contemporary political, economic and cultural formations that define how we ought to

manage and live, ecosystem services – as a metaphor, scientific practice, model, and policy approach – are largely formulated by experts located in scientific and governmental institutions of the Global North. Ecosystem services seem to be poised to become a key universal guiding how we ought to live with, manage, and produce nature in the 21st century, in the so-called Anthropocene. But as with other ‘universals’, ecosystem services are a highly variegated in definition and in practice, and marked by debates and contradictions. The rise of ecosystem services Ecosystem services, as a concept, emerged out of the implosion of two disciplines: economics and ecology. Erik Gomez-Baggethun and his colleagues (2010) trace the history of the general notion of ecosystem services to the era of classical economists in the 19th century, including Ricardo, Mill and Malthus, all of whom were explicitly concerned with the services humans receive by “natural agents” (1211). The marginalist revolution of the 20th century reoriented focus to the sphere of exchange values, turning away from the non-priced or nonmarketed contributions of ecosystems. This ushered in the heyday of economic arrogance regarding the substitution of goods in face of increasing scarcity (and correlated high prices). The rise of environmental and resource economics in the 1960s provided some correctives to these blind spots, and created methods to value environmental costs and benefits, including those without a market price. Departing from this significantly in the 1970s, heterodox economists with systems ecology backgrounds began to actively challenge the substitutability of ecosystems, arguing that there are ‘limits to growth’ (Georgescu-Roegen 1971, Daly 1977). Ecological economics, as the discipline came to be known, effectively advanced the notion that nature is a stock of ‘natural capital’ that provides ecosystem services – a stock that is limited and being depleted. For ecologists, a focus on ecosystem services began in the early 1980s along with deepening concern about ecological change and biodiversity loss (although thinking in terms of ecosystem functioning has a longer history in ecology). Ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich use the concept of ecosystem services to explain why all of humanity ought to be concerned with biodiversity loss. Their 1981 book Extinction put forward the argument that species diversity is central to the earth’s life support systems, as it provides a basis for healthy ecosystem functioning, which in turn delivers the ecosystem goods and services humanity needs. Their book approvingly cites ecological economist Herman Daly’s focus on the ‘limits’ to growth and the need for a steady state economy, and pits this against traditional economic thinking and a global political economy that puts economic growth above all else. In the 1990s, the concept of ecosystem services became central to conversations between leading ecologists and economists, as they attempted to bridge the divide between the concerns of ecologists and the approach of mainstream economics. Many conversations take place at the Beijer Institute on Ecological Economics in Sweden, which undertook a project on the economics of biodiversity in the early 1990s. Within this project, ecosystem services are a key concept facilitating dialogue between ecologists and economists about biological diversity, especially for translating the problem of biodiversity into mainstream economics. The consensus emerging from Beijer Institute is less focused on limits to growth, and more focused on how to optimize and economically manage ‘life on earth’. 1997 was a banner year for the concept. Ecological economist Robert Costanza and his co-authors published an article valuing the world’s ecosystem services at $33 trillion (USD) (Costanza et al. 1997), a paper now cited over 10,000 times. The article lead to enormous debate, largely focused on the methodological approach. The same year, ecologist Gretchen Daily (1997), also a participant in the Beijer meetings, published the edited


collection titled Nature’s Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems, a book cited over 4000 times. Despite this growing elaboration of the concept in the academy, ecosystem services remained largely on the outside of much environmental law, policy and advocacy, especially conservation policies and politics. Decisions made under the Convention on Biological Diversity scarcely mention the term until 2006 (see table 1 below). Large environmental NGOs such as Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy maintained their focus on biodiversity conservation through hotspots and other biodiversity-related criteria. The practice of biodiversity conservation by NGOs, biologists and ecologists in the 1990s focused on the establishment of parks and protected areas, and, in the so-called ‘developing’ world, on what are often termed ‘integrated conservation and development projects’ – projects that emphasize joint objectives of environmental protection and economic development. While focused on conservation and poverty alleviation/development, these approaches were not guided by the use of quantitative assessments of ecosystem services. Conference of the Parties COP 5 (2000) COP 6 (2002) COP 7 (2004) COP 8 (2006) COP 9 (2008) COP 10 (2010) COP 11 (2012) COP 12 (2014)

# of decisions mentioning “ecosystem services” 2 3 6 7 10 22 16 13

# of times words “ecosystem services” found in decisions 5 3 15 79 52 118 83 57

Table 1. Growth in “ecosystem services” discourse at the Convention on Biological Diversity The broader context of environmental law and policy, however, does take an economistic, market-oriented – often termed neoliberal – turn at this time, when governments began to place increasing faith in markets for achieving wealth and environmental governance. This included the creation of the 1990 Clean Air Act in the United States, establishing a cap and trade system to deal with emissions leading to acid rain. One early, possibly the first, ecosystem service market emerged to enact the broad principles of the Clean Water Act. Wetland banking – a scheme that allows for those who impact wetlands to purchase credits from firms who produce functioning wetlands – emerged to meet the broad principles of this Act, while not impeding development (see Robertson 2004). Perhaps most famously, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which established binding reductions for developed countries, followed in the footsteps of the Clean Air Act by allowing for ‘developed countries’ to exceed their reductions by buying offsets produced in the Global South through the Clean Development Mechanism. The CDM, while mostly producing credits related to increased efficiencies and fuel switching, does include credits produced via the carbon sequestration services of living systems, defined technically as ‘Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry’ offsets. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the elaboration of tort law in the United States to include damages to natural resources is another institutional driver of economic valuation of ecosystem services, as polluters like BP are required to pay for the cost of environmental 3

damages like the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico, or the earlier Exxon Valdez spill. For example, in order to capture the ‘passive use values’ – meaning the existence value, or sometimes called ‘nonuse’ value of ecosystems – damaged by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the state of Alaska commissioned a large contingent valuation study that lead to a national commission on the methodology a few years later, headed by Nobel prize winning economists Kenneth Arrow and Robert Solow (see Carson et al 2003 on the Exxon, and Kornfeld 2011 on the Deepwater Horizon). The notion of fungability in ecosystems was also a part of the European Union habitats directive (92/43/EEC) in 1992, which requires protected areas that are degraded to be replaced elsewhere with their equivalent (for a recent review of this policy and its elaboration see McGillivray 2012). Millennium Ecosystem Assessment The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), released in 2005, is a key turning point in the life of ecosystem services. A monumental work involving more than 1300 scientists over five years, the MA took a turn in the approach to international environmental assessment previously conducted (i.e. the Global Biodiversity Assessment) by focusing on auditing changes in ecosystems and biodiversity in relation to human well-being. The summary findings from the MA are grim. The MA estimates that 60 percent (15 out of 24) of the ecosystem services examined are being degraded or used unsustainably, including fresh water, capture fisheries, air and water purification, and the regulation of regional and local climate, natural hazards, and pests. Many of these ecosystem services are being degraded as a result of increased supply of other services, like food (MA 2005, 1). Importantly, the MA also argues that the effects of ecosystem service degradation are felt most by those with the lowest incomes, results that would not surprise geographers studying processes of uneven development.


Figure 1. Model of ecosystem service framework employed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment © Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 Besides this assessment, the MA concretized a framework for understanding ecosystems as a stock of natural capital that provide ecosystem services, producing the now ubiquitous categorizations of services: supporting, regulating, provisioning and cultural (see figure 1). These categorizations are now commonly used to delineate what nature does for humanity. However, these definitions of ecosystem services are not without debate even amongst proponents of the approach, as some economists argue that the definition is too broad, and not appropriate for facilitating appropriate economic accounting (see review in Dempsey and Robertson 2012). For the scientists and policy-makers involved in the MA, proper management of ecosystem services is not a ‘zero sum game’, nor is it about tracking human encroachment into some ‘pristine nature’. More than anything, the central governance problem emerging from the MA centers on measuring and managing trade-offs between different ecosystem services. For example, impounding streams for hydroelectric power may have negative consequences on fish populations, and thus on ‘provisioning services’. Or outputs of provisioning services such as timber (i.e. as a result of increased rates of logging) can have a negative impact on the regulation of another service, like the flood prevention service or carbon sequestration service that is provided by forest cover. These tradeoffs are complex, and, the MA argues, must consider temporal and spatial scales, as well as degrees of reversibility (see figure 2 below). For example, a trade-off between maximizing a service like food production now which will impact the service provision later, or maximizing a service in one particular place (upstream) such as hydroelectricity is a trade-off with the provision of fish in a different place (downstream). The project of ecosystem services as it is articulated through the MA is most centrally about producing the conditions – in this case knowledge conditions or framework – where the value of different courses of action can be quantitatively assessed. The hope is, of course, that such knowledge will lead to optimal decisions and policy options, ones that consider not just traditional commodities, but also previously excluded ecological services. In focusing on trade-offs amongst many ecosystem services, together, the approach appears to undermine a focus on achieving ‘maximum sustained yield’ for a single commodity (i.e. maximizing fisheries, agricultural output, or timber production), and rather to maximize yield for a broader array of services that ecosystems provide, beyond what is traditionally priced. Ideally such modeling would also consider the way that consumption of ecosystem services at one time have effects for future generations, and to consider the way that the consumption of ecosystem services in one place have effects for people, communities in other places.


Figure 2. Eight categories of ecosystem service trade-offs Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Scenarios, p. 434. © Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005, reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C. While many governmental, NGO, and private sector institutions welcomed the MA, the reports also generated debates (i.e. McCauley 2006, Reid et al 2006) and pointed to challenges (i.e. Carpenter 2006). Concerns are raised about the utilitarian framing by environmentalists, indigenous communities and organizations, and also governments. For example, writing during a negotiation of the Convention on Biological Diversity just after the release of the MA, a collective of NGOs and activists noted this shift in tone of the negotiations towards the language of the World Bank and World Trade Organization, arguing that the focus should be on the public benefits that ecosystems provide, rather than services that might fall under the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (ECO 2005). Critiques come from inside the academy, too, as ecologists and economists alike express concerns. Reflecting on the outcomes of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, leading ecologists, and a central scientist in the MA, Steve Carpenter et al (2006), note that a barrier to the ecosystem service approach sits with a paucity of ecological knowledge, especially related to how changing quantities of biodiversity, or changing ecosystem structure, relates to changes in ecosystem functioning and services. Richard Norgaard (2010) provides a more fundamental critique of the ecological-economic model of the MA, taking issue with what the way the MA conceptualizes nature as a “stock” that “flows” ecosystem services to humans. Norgaard asserts that the social and ecological problems of our time require a diversity of ecological approaches, further arguing that the stock-flow model fits too well with status-quo institutional and deeply uneven power relations, and fails to question the broader political-economic obsession with economic growth. Many others, including ecologists (i.e. Adams and Redford 2009), and political ecologists (i.e. Sullivan 2009), focus on the perils of economic metaphors and practices that will lead to further inequities between people and ecosystems. Economic valuation: towards “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” Dogging natural resource, environmental and ecological economists for three decades is the


question of how to value non-marketed aspects of ecosystem services. The debate following the release of Costanza’s (1997) paper that valued all of the earth’s ecosystems demonstrates this. Costanza’s impulse was aggregative and summative, which lead to loud critiques from marginalist economists who saw his 33 trillion as ‘breaking the rule’: who could buy the whole earth? Rather, his critics argued that valuation must focus on establishing credible market prices based on supply and demand (see Dempsey and Robertson 2012). There remains debate within the ecosystem services literature about valuation, including debates over the ethical implications of discount rates, and the role for non-monetary valuations, for example (i.e. Heal 2000, Ludwig et al. 2005, TEEB 2010, Luck et al. 2009). In 2007, in response to these debates and gaps in knowledge, and also following on the heels of the Stern report and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, in 2007 the G8 Environmental Ministers created The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project to study the economic impact of the global loss of biodiversity. The head of the initiative was Pavan Sukhdev, a former international banker, whose writing and talks sometimes sound revolutionary. For example, he states that “the root causes of biodiversity loss lie in the nature of the human relationship with nature, and in our dominant economic model”, going on to say that our current economy “promotes and rewards more versus better consumption, private versus public wealth creation, human-made capital versus natural capital” (TEEB 2010, xviii, his emphasis). Yet, despite this widespread criticism of contemporary Western culture and economies, in the next breath Sukhdev states that the main problem is of externalities and market-failure: “there are no ‘markets’ for the largely public goods and services that flow from ecosystems and biodiversity” (TEEB 2010, xxi). The first report emerging from TEEB in 2008 valued the cost of inaction on biodiversity loss and ecosystem change – in terms of lost ecosystem services – at about 50 billion Euros per year. If current rates of ecosystem change and biodiversity loss continue, the report estimates that by 2050 (from a base of the year 2000), the opportunity cost in terms of lost ecosystem services would weigh in at 14 trillion dollars. TEEB ended in 2010, after producing a number of reports that drew attention to the global benefits of biodiversity and the costs of biodiversity loss, reports targeted to specific end-users: international and national policy-makers, sub-national policy makers, business and enterprise, and individuals. These TEEB reports recognize the challenges, uncertainties and politics of economic valuation. Yet they unequivocally state that economic valuation “of Nature’s public goods and service flows is both necessary and ethical” (xxi) in order to communicate with decision makers “using the language of the world’s dominant economic and political paradigm” (xix). In pursuit of better valuations, TEEB produced a book (TEEB 2010) that synthesized the foundations of ecological-economic valuation. While this text recognized the wide variety of approaches to valuation, overall it largely consolidated a neoclassical (preference based) approach to valuation, which is amenable to assessing trade-offs between different uses of land and ecosystems (recall the role of trade-offs in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment). A crucial debate in valuation is how marginalist approaches can be used to value the resiliency of ecosystems in conditions that are increasingly non-linear with changing climates (i.e. that have thresholds where the system changes dramatically) (see chapter 5 of TEEB 2010). Gretchen Daily and her co-authors (2000) note the limitations of measuring the additional value (or the reduction in value) in ecological systems that are “highly interdependent” and how “seemingly small changes in one place cause large impact on the overall system” (396). When ecological thresholds or boundaries are approached, then changes in ecosystem services cannot be measured using traditional marginalist approaches: how does one value even a small change that leads to collapse of an ecological system? Given this, TEEB (2010) warns that traditional valuation is not appropriate when approaching “ecological thresholds” (223), and Ring et al (2010) argue that there are cases where the “the 7

basic theorems of welfare economics are not valid” (17). These contradictions are recognized by scholars and experts, but often not discussed when economistic approaches are embraced in the mainstream. And how do new environmental markets appear in the work of TEEB? The written books are careful to note that the project is not about market-making, for example, stating that “[p]lacing blind faith in in the ability of markets to optimize social welfare, by privatizing the ecological commons and letting markets discover prices for them, is not at all what TEEB is about” (TEEB 2010 xxiv). Yet geographers Ken MacDonald and Catherine Corson (2010) argue TEEB is indeed part of a project of environmental market-making. Based upon participant observation at international meetings, they find that TEEB is central to “legitimating and circulating the narratives, images and ideas of nature essential to these new speculative nature markets” (181). With the current decline in international carbon markets, it is unclear what the next decade will bring in terms of market-making and growth, and it seems crucial to recognize that ecosystem services does not equal market-making. Emerging practices of ecosystem service assessment and policy While there are ongoing debates and challenges to the concept, ecosystem services are now firmly found within the discourse and increasingly in the practice of the world’s largest conservation organizations, known as BINGOs (Big International Non-Governmental Organizations): the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International (CI). But taking ecosystem services from a model and conceptual framework into practice, policy and politics is an ongoing project, and one with enormous variation. Calculating ecosystem services While it is now common to speak in the language of ecosystem services, calculating those services with any ecological credibility is a whole other matter. To convince decision-makers to invest in ecosystems (i.e. protect or restore them), ecosystem services need not only to be heuristic, but incorporated into the cost-benefit or due diligence models of decision-makers (governmental, corporate). Ecosystem services must be turned into quantified flows that can be represented in numbers, ideally dollars and cents. This problem is widely recognized in the ecosystem services literature, by proponents of the concept and approach. In response, academics (including/not least ecologists and economists), conservation organizations, and international institutions, are creating spatially explicit models that assess the flows of services from particular land and marine assemblages, biophysically and economically. This includes the Integrated Valuation of Environmental Services and Tradeoffs (InVEST) tool produced by The Natural Capital project (a collaboration between Stanford University, The University of Minnesota, and two conservation organizations: The Nature Conservancy and WWF-US). InVEST is an open source computer modeling software tool that quantifies, maps and values ecosystem services. To refer back to the conceptualization of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (above), InVEST aims to make quantitative the tradeoffs associated with different courses of action; it seeks to organize and structure encounters between humans and the “calculative goods” of ecosystem services – in the present and future - to compare and contrast different courses of action in land and marine use. With the (idealized) knowledge of how increasing one particular ecosystem service (say soya production) impacts on other ecosystem services (say carbon sequestration, water quality, pollination services) in the short and long term and over various spatial scales, this integrative framework is meant to help ‘decision-makers’ optimize allocations of resources. In rendering the costs and benefits of different land uses visible and quantifiable, InVEST aims to give the state, or decision-makers, the tools to govern environmentally and economically at the same time, to design policies that could maximize value, and govern efficiently and 8

environmentally. InVEST is now being used throughout the world, for water security in Latin America, to design coastal protection in the Gulf of Mexico, and aiding China’s new systems of protected areas, for example. Given the difficulties of understanding ecosystem functioning and services, one significant question is how such models can provide accurate quantitative assessments (see Johnson et al 2012), especially with the uncertainties of climactic changes. This is a major tension in the turn to ecosystem services; while ecologists increasingly adhere to nonlinear and surprise-ridden models of ecosystems (especially with changing climates), the turn to ecosystem services requires them to nail down interactions and outcomes – ecological and economic – that can be rendered quantitative, and also accurately project service delivery into the future. Ecosystem service policies and markets Given these internal debates over how to define, calculate and value ecosystem services (economically and ecologically), it is not surprising that the practice of ES policy is difficult to characterize. Implementing the ecosystem service framework now includes national accounting strategies all the way to full markets in carbon sequestration ecosystem services. The most developed policy framework is known as PES – payments for ecosystem services – a term that refers to monetary incentives given to landowners (or tenure holder) to manage their land for a particular ecosystem service (say carbon sequestration, or water filtration). PES programs are sponsored by a wide range of institutions from international development agencies, to ENGOs to governments and for-profit firms. Although often characterized as market-based, not all PES are market-oriented, and many operate more like state-subsidies. For example, these exist in the form of agri-environmental subsidies schemes, where farmers get paid in Europe producing landscape ‘services’ rather than only crops. Such schemes are quite different than markets in wetlands such as those in the United States, (discussed above) or markets in forest or ecosystem carbon sequestration where there are buyers and sellers and stronger assumptions about ecological substitutability and fungibility. This has led some to categorize policies in terms of “payments” and “markets” for ecosystem services – PES and MES, respectively. For further discussion on the distinctions between incentives and markets see Pirard (2012), Muradian et al. (2013), Vatn (2014), all of whom argue that markets are a poor way to describe much of what is going on in ecosystem service policy-making. Indeed, many policies seem to be a mix of state-funded incentives and market-like governance. For example, McAfee and Shapiro (2010) describe Mexico’s PES program as hybrid neoliberalism, in that it combines market norms with state-sponsored rule making and institution building (586). Rather than straightforward commodification or the operationalization of market efficiency, McAfee and Shapiro find that Mexican PES policies are complex and contradictory, and morphed into a hybrid program due in large part to the efforts of activists and campesinos who wanted to see the program move in a pro-poor direction. In a detailed examination of Costa Rica’s PES program, Fletcher and Breitling (2012) ague that it operates more like a subsidy, as a way to support forest conservation through government funds distributed to forest owners (see also Vatn 2014). Ecosystem service policy design, particularly in the Global South, depends on the goals of the program: are practitioners trying to achieve “efficient allocations” of services, or trying to alleviate poverty? Or both? Are they a part of a global resource transfer, or a way to deal with national or regional issues? Within critical geography and other social sciences, much work focuses on empirically examining and theorizing the terrain of payments for ecosystem services and markets for ecosystem services. There is enormous variation in approaches and sites of empirical studies, but many researchers focusing on examining new 9

relations of property emerging within payments and markets for ecosystem services, drawing out new (and old) dispossessions and hierarchies in the wake of such policies (see review in Dempsey and Robertson 2012). Conceptually, much critical social sciences examination of ecosystem services draws from Marxist analysis, and on the production of new commodities. For example, Kosoy and Corbera (2010) argue that payments for ecosystem services should be understood through the lens of Marx’s commodity fetishism. They draw out how payments/markets for ecosystem service projects disregard ecosystem complexity in pursuit of market transactions, obliterating other social and ecological qualities, values, and relationships, producing (not ameliorating) new socio-economic hierarchies. Robertson (2012) draws from Marxist conceptions of value, arguing that the turn to ecosystem services must be understood as a transformation akin to that of labour under the advent of capitalist relations. Proponents of ES markets are also expressing doubts about the feasibility of market policies. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment lead Walter Reid (2006) notes the limits of environmental markets in the journal Nature. Others question a core argument for market policies: efficiency. With the small scale of many ecosystem service markets, and high transaction costs, some wonder if the market approach achieves any efficiency gains (i.e. Kroeger and Casey 2007, Muradian et al. 2010). National accounting standards For years environmentalists have bemoaned the narrow-ness of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for measuring the health of nations and citizens. Drawing on the work of economic valuation, there are moves afoot within the World Bank and many governments to account for a broader range of ecosystem service values in national balance sheets. In 2012, governments adopted an internationally agreed-upon method to account for natural resources like minerals, timber and fish (known as the UN Statistical Commission of the System for Environmental and Economic Accounts (SEEA)). Going beyond natural resources, the World Bank is now leading the “Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services” (WAVES) partnership that aims to bring a broader suite of ecosystem services into national economic accounts, and to promote and support this within developing nations. At Rio + 20 in 2012, 68 countries signed the Natural Capital Accounting declaration along with many multinational corporations (such as Wal Mart and Nestle). Over 44 financial institutions and firms have now signed the Natural Capital Declaration, a finance sector initiative to integrate natural capital considerations into loans, equity, fixed income and insurance products, as well as in accounting, disclosure and reporting frameworks. However, incorporating ecosystem changes into the quantitative models of the financial and corporate worlds is incredibly challenging (Dempsey 2013). Ecosystem services in the big picture A new universal? For many, ecosystem services represent a kind of new universal, a unifying concept that can finally bring environmentalism and conservation into the financial calculations of the private sector and the deliberations of governments, operationalizing the ever-elusive ‘green economy’. Ecosystem services, as Tallis and Kareiva (2006) argue, are “one of the few ideas that resonate in corporate and governmental board rooms, on stock exchanges and in farm houses, mud huts, eco-tourist lodges and palm palapas” (748). Proponents of ecosystem services often promote the approach in relation to the failures of biodiversity conservation: an approach that they say does not resonate with anyone but the converted, or that separates humans from ecosystems. 10

Yet there are crucial commonalities between ecosystem services and other materialsemiotic orderings, like biodiversity and even wilderness. All are concepts still largely produced in the same institutions: academics based (or trained) in Global North, conservation organizations whose modus operandi is still oriented in the Global North, and institutions like the World Bank. In other words, the production of a world of ecosystem services is, in many ways, a re-iteration of the (colonizing) conceit of Western science and experts to discern from a distance the laws of, in this case socio-ecological, natures. As Sullivan (2009) asks, “what knowledge and experiences are being othered and displaced through the parlance and practice of ecosystem services?” (23). In other words, what new and old orientations of power and knowledge does the material-semiotic object of ecosystem services facilitate? The turn from biodiversity towards ecosystem services ushers in new hierarchies and rankings, with implications for what kinds of socioecologies will be invested in, or not. Will these be less violent? And, if so, for whom? In addition to the work of critical scholars, there continues to be social movement and activist opposition to the ecosystem services turn. Most recently at World Trade Organization negotiations (late 2012), a statement released by the Indigenous Peoples Movement for SelfDetermination and Liberation called for “the halt of all policies controlling the reproductive capacity of Mother Earth through market-based mechanisms that allow for the quantification and commodification of the natural processes of Mother Earth being branded as ecosystem services” (IPMSDL 2013). And there are signs that proponents of ecosystem services recognize this conceit. Indeed, a recent set of articles in ecology draw out some of these questions, focusing on the ethics of ecosystem services, noting explicitly that ecosystem services are only one metaphor or approach, and it may not be “culturally appropriate” in all cases (Raymond et al. 2013). Yet, despite these challenges, ecosystem services are being embraced in international policy, national governments, multinational firms and financial institutions. This suggests that the approach is increasingly in the hands of institutions that have benefited most from ecosystem service decline, raising serious questions about how this particular metaphor/model can avoid the colonizing, violent and reductionist tendencies that hampered other environmental metaphors and models. Will it work? Linked to the above, there is the question of whether the approach can contribute to lessening ecological impoverishment; in other words, will this new environmental formation of ecosystem services change decisions towards sustainability? Can it make the green economy a reality? And, how will we be able to tell? Placing the ecosystem service turn into conversation with political-economic trends tells us that certainly it is no panacea. Indeed, this is what a broadly based geographical political economy brings to the question of environmental change. When one examines power relations globally, one has to wonder if the ES turn results in little more than ‘tinkering’ as Noorgard suggests (2010). Decisions – say, to build new energy infrastructure to extract fossil fuels (pipelines, refineries), or the continued destruction of mangroves for shrimp farms are not likely to be reversed due to new calculative figures about the costs (for example, the reduction of ecosystem services resulting from ocean acidification and mangrove destruction). While economically ‘stupid’ or ‘irrational’ decisions may haunt us in the future, those stupid economic decisions pay in the present. A recent study commissioned by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is revealing: The study tallied up the globe’s total unpriced natural capital (ecological materials and services for which businesses currently do not pay), like clean water and a stable atmosphere. It found that none of the world’s biggest businesses would be profitable if they had to pay for those services (Trucost 2013). ‘Irrational’ economic decisions continue not only because we lack prices and values of natural capital, but also because many large, powerful and (currently profitable) 11

industries, institutions and governments depend deeply on these externalizations. Changing these externalizations means coming up against these deeply embedded structures. Put another way, a major problem facing ecosystem service trade-offs remains the same as it was for biodiversity conservation: who will pay the price of shifting to better, more ‘rational’ decisions? How can we convince the state, for example, to stop approving businessas-usual energy infrastructure? A big question for ecosystem service proponents – scientists, experts, conservationists – is whether, and if so, how, this particular concept and model can be mobilized to break these deep political-economic entrenchments, and/or help us deal with “humanity’s shriveled ecological options and gross social injustices” (Norgaard 2010, 1224). Cross references: Conservation and capitalism; Environmental governance; Environmental knowledges expertise; Environmental science and society; Environmental valuation; Green capitalism; Nature conservation; Neoliberalism and environment; Political ecology References: Adams, W.M. and K.H. Redford. 2010. Ecosystem services and conservation: a reply to Skroch and Lopez-Hoffman. Conservation Biology 24(1): 328–329. Carpenter, S.R., R. DeFries, T. Dietz, H.A. Mooney, S. Polasky, W.V. Reid, and R. J. Scholes. 2006. Millennium ecosystem assessment: research needs. Science 314(5797): 257. Carson, R.T., R.C. Mitchell, M. Hanemann, R.J. Kopp, S. Presser, and P.A. Ruud. Contingent Valuation and Lost Passive Use: Damages from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Environmental and Resource Economics 25: 257–286, 2003. Costanza, R. et al. 1997. The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature 387(6630): 253–260. Daily, G.C. (ed.) 1997. Nature’s services: societal dependence on natural ecosystems. Island Press, Washington, DC. Daly, H. (1977) Steady state economics. San Francisco: WH Freeman. Dempsey, J. 2013. Biodiversity loss as material risk: Tracking the changing meanings and materialities of biodiversity conservation. Geoforum 45: 41-51. Dempsey, J. and M. Robertson. 2012. Ecosystem services: tensions, impurities, and points of engagement within neoliberalism. Progress in Human Geography 36: 758–779. ECO. 2005. Biodiversity provides benefits – it is a public asset, not a service! Eco 14(3): 1. Ehrlich, P. and A. Ehrlich. 1981. Extinction: the causes and consequences of the disappearance of species. Ballantine Books, New York. Fletcher, R. and J. Breitling. 2012. Market mechanism or subsidy in disguise? Governing payment for environmental services in Costa Rica. Geoforum 43: 402-411. Georgescu-Roegen, N. 1971. The entropy law and the economic process. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gómez-Baggethun, E., R. De Groot, P.L. Lomas, and C. Montes. 2010. The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: from early notions to markets and payment schemes. Ecological Economics 69(6): 1209–1218. Heal, G. 2000. Valuing ecosystem services. Ecosystems 3: 24–30. IPMSDL. 2013. Declaration of Indigenous Peoples on the World Trade Organization. Available at, last accessed November 2014. Johnson et al. 2012. Uncertainty in ecosystem services valuation and implications for assessing land use tradeoffs: An agricultural case study in the Minnesota River Basin.


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