Ecosystem services: critics and defenders debate

It seemed like a case of perceptual vigilance, where suddenly the cool thing you just learned about appears to be everywhere. From a Wikipedia article on pollination to a widely-read Wired Science story on bats, the concept of ecosystem services, the subject of our blog, popped up frequently this month. That when, half a year ago, this ignorant journalism student had never heard of it.

As I asked around, however, it seemed less a case of perceptual vigilance and more that awareness of ecosystem services is on the rise. Natural Capital Project co-founder Pater Kareiva agreed that the concept has gained a lot of traction recently, with non-profits and governmental agencies ranging from the Wildlife Conservation Society to NOAA embracing it.

The recent Wired Science article on the $3 billion in ecological services provided by bats employed the concept whole-heartedly. “…protecting [bats] isn’t just ethical,” wrote its author Brandon Keim. “It makes bottom-line sense.”

But while ecosystem services has gained supporters and visibility, not everyone buys into the concept. In fact, it has attracted a contingent of vocal critics over the years.

Notably, in 2006, Douglas McCauley wrote the critique, “Selling Out On Nature.” Published in Nature, the article raised the commonly held concern about the consequences of monetizing nature. The thinking is that if each wild thing gets a price tag, then it can be bought, sold and bartered like so many iPads and Chia Pets– and dropped just as quickly when new technology competes with nature’s services. McCauley also questioned the method’s effectiveness as a primary means of conservation and suggested that people should be motivated to conserve nature for nature’s sake, and not purely because of its value to humans.

Conveniently, McCauley is situated at Stanford, home also to the Natural Capital Project and me. When I contacted McCauley to see if he’d discuss how his thinking on the subject had evolved since 2006, he was in the midst of defending his doctoral thesis in community ecology. To work around his total lack of free time, we communicated via e-mail.

“What concerned me five years ago,” he wrote, “was the lack of self reflection we were making on the limitations of this approach and the blind enthusiasm with which many were propping up ES as the salvation for nature. I think it is clear that there are many situations in which ES conservation will not work.”

When a wild thing is not benevolent to humans, wrote McCauley in his 2006 article, ecosystem services can be less effective at protecting it.

To get the NatCap response to such criticisms, I visited Kareiva. He’s at Stanford this year, on sabbatical from the Nature Conservancy, where he’s the chief scientist. He co-founded the Natural Capital Project in 2006, coming to the cause from a background in mathematics and agricultural ecology.

When I asked when he became aware of ecosystems services, I was expecting to hear, “I had this amazing professor who taught the then-revolutionary concept in my undergrad days back in the 70′s.” Instead, he replied, “the idea is as old as humans have been on the planet.”

He provided the example of Japan, where he said some of the earliest conservation efforts stemmed from planting trees in the hopes of preventing flooding. That was 2000 years ago. The newer idea, he said, was biodiversity.

In other words, Kareiva suggested that a pragmatic, human-centered approach to conservation long-preceded a more ideological, nature-for-its-own-sake strategy. But in his e-mail, McCauley wrote that economic incentives can be impermanent and that other strategies could have a more lasting impact on conservation.

“In my opinion,” he wrote, “the greatest values of nature are not those that turn us monetary profits. The real values of nature are its intrinsic biological, aesthetic, cultural, and evolutionary merits. I think we need to put primacy on teaching people about these values.”

In response, Kareiva characterized the idea that ecosystem services is all about monetary profits as a common misconception. Often, he said, the Natural Capital Project never connects a direct dollar value to the areas it’s helping to conserve. Rather, it provides maps and a way to quantify the services to stakeholders so they have a sense of the value of an area. From that, they can decide how much they want to invest in conserving it.
This conversation exists not just in emails and printed papers, but in the real world as well. McCauley noted that he’d been able to discuss both “fundamental differences in opinion with NatCap” and “a common frustration over the pace that things are being done to protect nature” with NatCap’s Gretchen Daily and Hal Mooney.

“I have great respect for the work that Hal and Gretchen have done drawing attention to some very important environmental problems,” he wrote.  ”It has been really easy to talk to both because we have this shared interest in trying to make people think about these issues and increase the progress that conservation is making.”

Since he wrote his original Nature the article, he says he’s seen lots of writing and reporting discussing what he sees as ecosystem services’ strengths and weaknesses. He thinks this had less to do with the particulars of his own critique than “the natural ontogeny of ideas” — an interesting concept — which he described this way:

1. A new and exciting idea comes on the market that looks like the salvation for all our woes.

2. Eventually we realize it has limitations and problems and is no more a panacea than any of the ideas that preceded it.

3. We add it to the portfolio of diverse methods needed for effective problem solving.

In the end, McCauley’s message was that ecosystem services can be a powerful and effective tool — but that it should be used on a case-by-case basis, and not as the universal default approach.

I ran that idea by Kareiva. “I probably think it has more of a role to play than he does,” he said with a smile. “But I agree we don’t want to be too single-minded in our approach.”

Photo 1 via Google

Photo 2 via Flickr/ longhorndave

Photo 3 via Flickr/ KRO-Media

Who is Science, Upstream?

Jamie Hansen

JAMIE HANSEN has written for Sierra Magazine, the High Country News, and Birders’ World. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Stanford, hoping to tie together two passions: a keen interest in the natural world and communicating with broad audiences. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College, but fell in love with biology during her last semester.

Julia James

JULIA JAMES is a master’s candidate in Journalism at Stanford University. She often writes about issues relating to human and environmental health. When not chained to a computer, she likes to climb rocks and chase Frisbees. She holds a B.S. in geological and environmental sciences (also from Stanford) and lives in Palo Alto with six housemates and five chickens.

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