ecosystem services collapsing
ecosystem services collapsing (Photo credit: Kalense Kid)

Following on from this month’s film night’s exploration of our experiential relationship to nature, and how art, geography and archaeology can shed light on nature’s place in our lives, Tuesday 19th March’s Cafe examined the relationship with nature that is enacted through public policy, and particularly the increasingly popular ‘ecosystem services‘ model for thinking about how we can best translate the importance of nature to our lives into measures that protect and sustain natural environments. At our last Cafe we considered how we connect to nature and what this connection means to us. At this Cafe, we explored whether we can translate what nature means to us into forms that have real political and ethical impact.

Isabelle Durance, head of the DURESS project (based in Biosciences at Cardiff University) offered systems science as just such a means of translation. She introduced the concept of ecosystem services, noting that the ecosystems within which social systems are rooted provide or contribute to the production of a range of goods, including health, resources for the economy, protection from hazards like flooding, and socio-cultural benefits (like exercise, leisure and so on). Many of these are hard to evaluate because of the complexity of the ecosystems that produce them. Others are hard to value because they are intangible (as in the case of socio-cultural goods). Yet initiatives such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the UK National Ecosystem Assessment suggest that thanks to the primacy of market values in our society, the goods produced within the economy are what are valued, while the inputs from ecosystems that support the economy, along with the impact of economic activity on these systems are not valued or assessed properly. The effect, looking to the future, will likely be the diminution of ecosystem services because of the pressures that these impacts exerton the environment – through pollution, climate change and so on.

Consequently, Isabelle argued, we need a science of ecosystems in order to provide the kinds of information we need in order to assess and evaluate more accurately the contribution they make to our survival and flourishing, and particularly to the health of our economies and our cultural lives. What’s more, we need this kind of information urgently, particularly since, here in Wales and elsewhere, the idea of ecosystem services is shaping how policymakers act. The Living Wales programme, begun by the Welsh Government, aims to set up a single body, Natural Resources Wales, to make decisions about how best to look after the Welsh environment. This body will operate in the context of whatever legislation results from the continuing development of the Sustainable Development Bill, in which all public bodies are enjoined to take decisions with ‘consideration’ of sustainable development (a form of words which was criticised by Robin Attfield in our January Cafe on Sustainability).

The DURESS project focuses on the specific contribution made by biodiversity to sustaining ecosystem services, with a specific focus on water and especially rivers in the Brecon Beacons. Growing pressures on these rivers are changing the populations of invertebrates which inhabit them. A rise in temperature in recent years has been noted, and the abundance of different species has reduced, with the real prospect of local extinctions of some invertebrate species in the future. In order to understand why, a great deal of information is needed about how the ways in which we use the land affect the resilience of river ecology. But this poses real questions about how far we will be able to close the knowledge gaps that confront us in the time we have before significant change occurs.

If we are able to get this kind of information, what do we do with it? Scientific data, interpreted through the ecosystems services model, may serve as the basis for economic modelling of the costs and benefits of different choices. But does it make sense to do this? It’s true that the language of economics is listened to by policymakers, and so translating what we value in nature into costs and benefits may give a voice to the otherwise voiceless – following the recommendation of the former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, ‘if you treasure it, measure it.‘  Dr Paul Anderson (Law, Warwick University) gave a critique of this economic approach to nature that was rooted in political philosophy, and which examined its basic assumptions. He argued that these assumptions are wrong, and as a result, the economic approach can neither be effective, nor does it understand the nature of the problem it is trying to solve.

At What Price Nature?

The economic approach is typically framed (by, for example, the Welsh Government, DEFRA and also at the Rio+20 summit last year) in terms of neo-classical micro-economic theory. The problem, it is argued, is that nature, or ecosystem services, is not valued because it is a ‘free input’. There is no pricing mechanism that will accurately assess the benefits nature provides us, therefore what needs to happen is the creation of a market in which natural goods can be assigned prices. Exploitation of these goods (either as factors of production or as sinks for pollution) will then incur costs that those using them will need to pay. However, this is generally taken to mean that the natural goods in question (say, ecosystems) will need to be privatised. Once in private hands, access to them can be charged for, and nature’s contribution to our lives will be protected. If necessary, markets can be created by producing ‘shadow prices’ for goods based on what people might be willing to pay to obtain them or to avoid harm to them (this approach is taken by Government departments in determining the implications for climate change of each tonne of Co2 emitted as the result of a given policy, for example).

Paul argued that this approach is ineffective because, as Isabelle had pointed out, there are knowledge gaps that stop us from appreciating the real biophysical contribution made by ecosystems to supporting our societies. Neo-classical economics assumes that prices are set by people with perfect (or near-perfect) information about the goods they are valuing. But we do not have this. Second, there is an inherent bias in a pricing-based approach against those who cannot register their preferences – such as future generations and non-humans. If some of those affected by decisions cannot express a preference through the system of prices, then the price set for a good will not reflect its value adequately. Third, pricing natural goods opens them up to the vagaries of the market. If a given river is valued by its owner at £50m, then if someone is willing to pay  £60m to dam, divert or otherwise exploit it, there is no economic reason why this should not be done – in fact, not to do so would be irrational. A price mechanism is a tool of those with economic power – the preferences of the rich, who have the power to pay more, count for more than those of the poor. Putting a price on natural assets ensures that they will belong to those who have the power to acquire them, rather than to everyone.

He then argued that economics can’t even grasp the nature of the problem, because it makes questionable assumptions about why things in general (and nature in particular) matter to people. For economics, people are consumers whose interests are expressed in their purchasing decisions, and whose basic impulse is to satisfy their preferences. But treating people as private consumers imposes a particular and biased view of social relationships on the real relationships between people and things. It ignores the fact that not all things are viewed as having monetary value, because it is part of the meaning of some things that they are beyond price. Paul took an example from the political philosopher John O’Neill, of friendship – and more specifically, of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. The moral wrong here was not the fact that Judas only valued his relationship with Jesus at 30 silvers, but that he was prepared to put a price on it at all. To price friendship is to misunderstand what friendship is. Similarly, people’s experiential connections with nature (of the kinds explored at our last Cafe) may lead them to refuse to put a price on natural goods as a positive expression of their genuine value to them.

If this is the case, then economics is the wrong tool for the job. The proper way of valuing nature would have to be political – based on an extension of democracy and the public sphere so that the reasons different people have for evaluating natural goods in particular ways (scientific, economic, attachment-based, moral, religious, aesthetic) can be  brought together and examined in open debate.

In discussion, it was noted that ‘putting a price on nature’ seemed to reflect a broader crisis of solidarity in contemporary society, and that it provided, in our current situation, the sole means for reaching agreement on what things are worth. Would the alternative proposed by Paul, it was asked, inevitably lead to ‘global NIMBYism’, with everyone fighting for the intrinsic value of their ‘patch’, making necessary trade-offs impossible? Paul replied that the kind of extension of democracy necessary to ensure that the value of nature could be openly and adequately debated would imply public questioning of the broader goals of policy – in effect, returning to Aristotle and the question ‘how shall we live’. This would enable the kinds of issues that provoke NIMBYism (‘shall we have a nuclear power station here, or here?’ to be reframed (‘what sort of energy strategy do we want?’) in ways that are deliberative and inclusive, rather than reinforcing a separation between policymakers who impose choices on the populace, and a public forced to respond to a limited set of options.

‘”Support for a strong economy” – should this be a necessary consideration in the health of ecosystems?’
‘We don’t live in an environment that permits continual growth’
‘Isn’t economic growth diametrically opposed to healthy ecosystems?’
‘Does relying on people’s evaluation of nature threaten global NIMBYism?’

From the audience…

The connection between economic growth and healthy ecosystems was seen as problematic by some. Perhaps, it was suggested, a resource-based economics approach, drawing on scientific knowledge, could provide the best way to achieve politically-legitimate decisions about how to value the environment. Isabelle argued that the uncertainties surrounding our knowledge of the contributions ecosystems make to our lives are mostly remediable, and that growing knowledge of these contributions were making a significant impact within Wales in particular in helping people re-connect to the natural world around them.

Would scientific information alone be enough, however, to change the way people act? Or are appeals to their values more effective? An example was mentioned of efforts to manage community woodlands using volunteers. The benefit of such efforts was that they created ways of publicly valuing nature that operated collectively, demonstrating for and within a community the value of its local environment. In general, though, does the ecosystem services view promote a view of humans as ‘managers’ of the Earth that is unrealistic? Can we ever achieve the kinds of knowledge we would require in order to fulfil this role? Or do we need to think of ourselves and our role differently (and with more humility) for the future?

What do you think? Take the poll below and comment under this post to register your views.


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