The Value of an Ecosystem

IMGP4613For some years now, some very smart people have been inventing ways to fit the processes of our global and local ecosystems into the processes of our global and local economies. The consensus product of this work has been the concept of “ecosystem services,” which are all the things we, as human beings, get out of an intact ecosystem.

Ecosystem services make a lot of sense compared to the other options. All the things we don’t consider in our economic calculations, all the externalities, start to become numbers that can fit into the schema. You might, for example, consider the cost savings of carbon capture associated with an intact forest. You might consider the damage averted by floodwater buffers provided by swamps and wetlands. You might count up the dollar value of a riparian buffer in topsoil retained and erosion prevented.

This is a major improvement, because traditionally, there have been only three ways to value something natural in an economic calculation, and only one of those has any real significance when it comes to conservation.

The main way we accommodate nature in our economic calculations is the most basic: resource exploitation. In fact, the majority of physical value in our economy comes from deconstructing natural systems and using their component parts to fuel human systems. Unfortunately, this mode makes no allowance for the value of the system, and only values the parts by how completely we can repurpose them. The only value in a standing old growth tree, by this measure, is the dollar value of its board feet.

The second way to measure ecosystems in our economy is by offsetting damage, and this is really an uneasy tug-of-war between environmental and economic interests. In this method, you can destroy a wetland if you create another, “equivalent” wetland somewhere along the way. This is, unfortunately, still used and never honestly applied. The replacement wetlands are often biological deserts with only a few plant species, and do not even come close to duplicating the diversity and function of the original. Another version of this approach is even worse: to preserve one wetland elsewhere as an excuse to destroy one, which is a 50% loss by any measure. The crux of it lies in interpreting the concept of “equivalency,” something for which there has rarely been a clear guide. By incorporating ecosystem services, though, there are specific measures one could use to lay out what would be expected in an “equivalent” wetland. Even so, this is not ideal—an honestly equivalent wetland would be prohibitively expensive, so any business creating one is highly motivated to cut corners.

The third way our economy values ecology is through tourism dollars. If something is beautiful enough that some people will pay to see it, conservation starts to have some economic value. But this is a precarious state of affairs—if a place becomes too impacted to be profitable, it could always be sold off and apportioned out for some other use. It also may not consider the whole system involved; we can preserve, for example, a beautiful canyon on the Colorado river, while still diverting so much of the river upstream that the riverbed in the canyon is only fetid mud.

Ecosystem services, I think, are a good step beyond all these approaches. They give us what none of the above can manage, which is a value for intact systems. As humanity covers more and more of the planet, fragments more and more of the wild places, and repurposes even more of our natural systems, the need for a consistent way to value intact systems is urgent.

And yet, I have never been fully comfortable with the idea of ecosystem services, because they seem, to me, to suffer from an irritating conceptual concession. Specifically, they concede that ecosystems are things we can and should value according to how they serve human beings.

Although it is a wonderful step to consider them as whole systems, the service of humans seems to me still too limited a view. What of the things systems do in which we play little or no part? How can we measure the value of a right whale, a spotted salamander, a boreal forest, or an arctic tern? What can these things be said to do for us? But to suggest they have no value is ridiculously anthropocentric.

I don’t want to be the kind of advocate who holds out for a silver bullet when a lead bullet is available. Neither do I want to be a person who settles for the mediocre when the good is possible. And so I think ecosystem services are worthwhile, and necessary, but insufficient.

I think, too, that we need to consider very carefully what it means to value things. Though it is a much bigger conversation, I think there is a serious difference between intrinsic value and dollar value. By necessity, the latter is smaller than the former. Even in human terms alone, the dollar value of a thing does not equal its total value. So, when it comes to conserving what is left of our ecosystems, I think we must not let dollar value take center stage. It has a use, and when it works we should use it, but we must not succumb to the idea that it is enough.


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