Ecosystem Services or The Downsides of Choosing the Wrong Namesake

Just a few days ago I published a post in which, among other things, I criticised economists for using the term “value of a statistical life”, as it begs to be misinterpreted and opens up space for criticism that is actually based on misconception. Today, I realised that often I must deal with a similar issue in my own research field. “Ecosystem services”, while arguably originally an eye-opening metaphor, seen from today’s perspective was a badly chosen term. It invites criticisms of the approach that are at odds with its essence, but are suggested by its name.

Often, the ecosystem services framework is criticised for being “economistic”, for leading to commodification of nature, for being narrowly anthropocentric… Actually, none of these points are true, at least not in general.

While borrowing the terminology from economics, the concept’s origins are in ecology (its early proponents, such as Paul Ehrlich, Gretchen Daily or Edward O. Wilson, are all ecologists). Ecosystem services are not to be viewed as belonging to the same category as human-provided services. It is just a metaphor which is based on a certain degree of similarity, not necessarily on identity. Furthermore, what is also often misunderstood: even in the more conventional, economic sense, services need not be private–indeed, the term “public services” is quite common in the fields of health care or education, and no-one is revolting against it.

Another misconception lies behind the equalisation of the ecosystem services concept with “markets for nature”. This is wrong, again. The identification of ecosystem services need not lead to their quantification. Quantification is not the same as valuation. Valuation does not logically involve monetary valuation. And even monetary valuation is not equal to marketisation/commodification. There exists a possible logical chain from the general identification of ecosystem services, or from the use of this framework, to commodification. But it is not an inevitable necessity that ecosystems be commodified only because they are framed as providing ecosystem services.

With regard to anthropocentrism–even from the economic perspective, there is no need to restrict the ecosystem service framework to the inclusion of narrowly anthropocentric values. Which ethical perspectives are included in valuation depends on which ethical perspectives are held by the people involved. Of course, it might be argued that this is true only in theory, in practice the economic valuation methods do not allowed for the inclusion of other value perspectives. However, as I argued recently, there exist valuation methods which offer an opportunity to overcome this and other limitations of conventional economic methods.

The last misconception I would like to mention shortly is the very narrow view by critics of the approach of what constitutes an ecosystem service. They mostly (implicitly) restrict their argument to provisioning services (food, wood etc.) and, sometimes, regulating services (flood control, pollination…). And then they insinuate that the ecosystem service approach ignores other, important considerations for why ecosystems are valuable. But by making this argument, the critics forget about the category of cultural services, such as aesthetics, heritage etc. This category includes many of the components critics accuse the ecosystem services concept of ignoring. While it is, again, much easier to include them in the general framework than, e.g., in valuation studies, it is misguided to base criticism of the framework on the implication that it excludes what actually can be included under the label of cultural services.

Despite all that, I think that those who coined the term “ecosystem services” are not without guilt. As (neoclassical) economics has a rather negative image among environmentalists, it was not necessarily a good idea to borrow a term from the economic sphere. Furthermore, there are economists and business people who do interpret the concept as a narrow “markets for nature” issue and an opportunity to make money of ecosystems. Therefore, scientists who have a broader perspective on what ecosystem services are and what the concept implies have to constantly justify what they do and why they do it. It is annoying and exhausting to explain this again and again and again… Would Ehrlich and Co. have chosen another namesake for their concept, the issue would possibly be less controversial and I would not have to justify my own research so frequently.

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