Monday, October 23, 2006

Ecosystem Disservices

Ecosystem services and disservicesEcosystem services are regularly invoked in policy and legal debates to justify an economic basis for conservation of biological diversity. The argument often takes the following form:

1. Ecosystems provide services (e.g., clean water, clean air, pollination) vital to humanity and other organisms.

2. The true value of ecosystem services tends to be undervalued on markets.

3. If ecosystem services were accurately valued on markets, it would be economically efficient to conserve them to a greater extent than is done at present.

In September, Douglas J. McCauley, a researcher in the Department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University, published a commentary entitled "Selling out on nature" in the journal Nature. McCauley argued against the current emphasis on ecosystem services as an argument for conservation. He suggested that an honest accounting of ecosystem contributions should include ecosystem disservices:
Trees take water out of watersheds; forests may be contributing to global temperature increases; wild animals kill people and destroy property; and wetlands can increase the risk of disease.
He noted that an ecosystem service can go from hero (e.g., pollination of a coffee plantation) to zero (e.g., irrelevancy of pollination to a pineapple plantation replacing a coffee plantation after a decline in coffee prices) very quickly. He expressed skepticism that ecosystem services could reliably maintain their market value in the face of technological development:
The entire history of technology and human 'progress' is one of producing artificial substitutes for what we once obtained from nature, or domesticating once-natural services.
Finally, McCauley cautioned that the valuation of ecosystem services is often relative, with a loss of value for some (e.g., scientists who lament the decimation of cichlid fish species in Africa's Lake Victoria by the invasive Nile perch) perceived as a net gain for others (e.g., local African fishermen whose profits from fishing have improved with introduction of the Nile perch).

So, on what arguments would McCauley rely instead to conserve biodiversity? He champions reliance on moral and aesthetic values, arguing that "[nature] has an intrinsic value that makes it priceless, and this is reason enough to protect it." As he states:
Some will argue that this view is simply too optimistic. They may believe that the best way to meaningfully engage policy-makers driven by the financial bottom line is to translate the intrinsic worth of nature into the language of economics. But this is patently untrue - akin to saying that civil-rights advocates would have been more effective if they provided economic justifications for racial integration. Nature conservation must be framed as a moral issue and argued as such to policy-makers, who are just as accustomed to making decisions based on morality as on finances.

The track record of achievements by conservationists motivated by a moral imperative to protect nature for nature's sake is impressive: consider the international ban on commercial whaling, the national parks of the United States, and the CITES ivory-trade ban. Meanwhile, the only 'successful' large-scale ecosytem-service-based conservation project yet achieved is the imperilled Catskill watershed. But this 'nugget' may turn out to be fool's gold.
McCauley's commentary has sparked a fierce debate in the Correspondence section of the journal Nature, with conservation luminaries such as Walter Reid, Robert Costanza, and Peter Kareiva arguing for a dual reliance on the market valuation and moral valuation of ecosystem services to maximize the chances for conservation.

While my sympathies lie with those who seek to marshal all cogent arguments in favor of conserving biodiversity, I do find worrying McCauley's suggestion that reliance on economic rationales for conservation can be illusory, and, even worse, can sometimes undermine what may be more powerful and convicing moral rationales. At the very least, McCauley has forced advocates of ecosystem services to double-check their calculus.


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