Nature’s Disservices

There is much talk in ecological and environmental economics about ecosystem services – all the things Nature contributes to human well-being, such as pollination, climate regulation, aesthetic values or food. Indeed, my own master’s thesis dealt with the ecosystem services approach to valuation of Nature. Even though I wrote about the problems generated by this approach (and there are many), I still am rather a proponent of it. Recently, however, I realized that there exists an important flaw in the way ecosystem services are valued. I owe this insight partly to Bjørn Lomborg and Douglas McCauley. Particularly the latter mentions explicitly the fact that not all Nature “does” is good for human beings. Indeed, along with ecosystem services, Nature provides us with many disservices, too.

The goal of the ecosystem services approach, as I stressed elsewhere, is to make clear to decision makers (politicians, CEOs, investors, the general public) that Nature has an economic value. Human livelihood is hardly imaginable without pollinators, a stable climate, clean water and, also, beautiful landscapes. Nature does not demand any compensation for the provision of these services, which does not mean that they are of no value. The economy and the broader society depend in many ways on stable and resilient ecosystems. That’s what ecological economists are trying to express when they estimate the value of ecosystems.

Having said that, one should also realize that some outcomes of ecosystem processes are of negative value to human beings. For example, swamps and wet forests are the homes of disease vectors (think of malaria bearing mosquitoes or Lyme disease/borreliosis causing tick bites). These ecosystems have other important functions that are beneficial to us – they regulate the micro-climate and help keep rivers clean, they provide many people with food and fire wood etc. But they are not all good. Similarly, Nature provides us with biocontrol – natural ways of getting rid of pests and weeds -, which enables us to use less unhealthy pesticides. But, on the other hand, it is natural ecosystems where the pests and weeds are coming from. Their existence is a disservice, at least in this particular context. Also, as pointed out by Lomborg, humanity is in a need for space – particularly for agriculture and for settlements. This need is being further aggravated by both population growth and climate change. Every ecosystem preserved means less additional place for human activities.

Ecosystem services are of tremendous importance and benefit to humanity. But, seen from the human perspective, these same ecosystems also generate disservices. This is something that is not accounted for in economic valuation efforts going by the name of “ecosystem services valuation”. However, it should be. If we count all the positive services Nature provides us with, we should be realistic and honest enough to count the numerous disservices against them.

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