Underestimating infinity: environmental value and ecosystem services – Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

Jasper Kenter from the University of Aberdeen gave the talk entitled ‘Critiques of valuing nature: can they be addressed?’. While there are various pros and cons of putting a price on nature, it is arguably one of the most effective tools available today to develop understanding of the importance of ecosystems to human well-being.

So why put a price on nature?

According to Jasper, we take nature for granted but at the same time the value of nature is deeply ingrained within all of us. Biophilia hypothesis, developed by the famous E. O. Wilson, states that humans have instinctive “urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. However, what we need is the conscious valuation of nature to lead improved and sustainable lives. In his book “Hidden Connections” Fritjof Capra presents a very convincing argument that instead of paying for “goods”, which is the common tax model today, we should be taxed for the “bads” [1]. This latter tax model is embodied in “polluter pays” principle and also indirectly in rewarding those who generate non-marketed benefits (e.g. ecosystem services resulting from restoration and conservation projects).

However, as expressed by the following statement, we indeed need an innovative approach when dealing with environmental problems:

Moreover, the following sentiment exemplifies the conceptual problems of thinking about nature in economical terms (where does one ecosystem end and the other begins?..):

Essentially, environmental valuation and ecosystem services concepts imagine nature as another commodity to be traded. It is often forgotten that nature has an intrinsic value, of and by itself; moreover, altruistic motivations for protecting environment has become less and less common. Memberships of and donations to conservation organisations, payments for ecosystem services and similar things, all offer an option of “buying-off guilt” for our wasteful, unsustainable way of living.

Jasper continued to demonstrate the flaws of nature valuation by pointing out that many types of values simply cannot be expressed in monetary terms, but more importantly:


Meaning that putting a price on nature will not solve all our problems, and cost-benefit analyses are not sophisticated enough to address the complexities of nature. There is a need of significant changes in all spheres of life (political, cultural, economical) for “value of nature” concept to actually deliver benefits. Finally, Jasper introduced the concept of ecosystem approach and its 12 principles developed by Convention on Biological Diversity as an alternative: ecosystem services form just one of the principles and the whole approach is much more holistic as it incorporates social, ecological and economic aspects. Moreover, ecosystem approach “recognizes that humans, with their cultural diversity, are an integral component of ecosystems”, sentiment echoed by the biophilia hypothesis and some of the speakers of the conference, but mostly ignored in our day-to-day lives.

(Jasper also briefly discussed his research in the Solomon Islands, check out his website for more information)

Yosemite Falls at Yosemite National Park, CA. Image by Kristina Simonaityte

Yosemite Falls at Yosemite National Park, CA. Image by Kristina Simonaityte

Final speaker of the day was Dr Emily Brady, lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Edinburgh. She discussed the section of ecosystem services known as cultural services, and the aesthetic value of nature. Dr Brady described cultural services as being “non-instrumental, experiential, heritage-expressive and identity-shaping”. These services are also highly individualistic. While it would probably be hard to find someone who does not appreciate the majestic beauty of the Yosemite landscapes, specific knowledge (e.g. ecological) is required to see beauty in, for example, decomposition:

The key message from Dr Brady was that it is important to incorporate arts and humanities when developing and introducing concepts such as ecosystem services to society. Emerging disciplines of Environmental and Ecological Humanities will become more and more important with increasing need to communicate intrinsic and functional value of nature to the wider public.

In conclusion, it is clear that ecosystem services is not a perfect concept, and it has many flaws as valuing nature is not as straightforward as putting a price tag on a physical commodity. However, there are effective tools to put this concept into practice, while some more holistic alternatives are already being proposed. The big issue is how the society values nature and whether humankind is capable of understanding that sacrifices made to halt the environmental degradation today will benefit our well-being in the long-term. Cultural services are just as important as the other ones with more scientific, physical basis, and their role should not be underestimated. Discussion of cultural services also pointed out the lack of communication between ecologists/environmentalists and social scientists; there is a need for a common language  between the two groups to advance the valuing of nature debate.

Keep Calm and Listen to Biophilia

Keep Calm and Listen to Biophilia

[1] Fritjof Capra was not mentioned by Jasper Kenter. I read that book just before starting my studies at university and it affirmed my decision to pursue ecology. Thus, I like to name-drop it occasionally :-)


One response to “Underestimating infinity: environmental value and ecosystem services – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Underestimating infinity: environmental value and ecosystem services – Part 1 |·

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