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Ecosystem Services for Whom?

A New Nature Blog

November 25, 2017

Darcey, Wanstead Park bluebellsEcosystem Services – the idea that we benefit from goods and services provided for free by nature. To be frank, the phrase is ugly. It’s ugly language to use to describe so much beauty – Nature; the bringer of joy, spirituality, reflection, contemplation, solace, inspiration.

Nature, the wellspring of human creativity, degraded to a service provider – like just another G4S or Carillion.

Language is vital. The words we use to describe things and processes constrain our thinking about the world – this is the main message of research on values and frames.

As it is with Natural Capital, so it shall be with Ecosystem Services.

Ecosystem Services is also a lie. The notion of a service provided conjures in our mind the idea that it is an economic transaction, just like going to the corner shop to buy a pint of milk (see how I framed that example?). But of course it is not a transaction, it is an extraction of resources, of goods, where nature has no choice about whether to provide the service or not. When we look at farm animals providing us with meat, do we call them service providers?

If a human takes a “service” from another human without permission, without payment, there are whole set of words to describe that relationship, none of them are pretty. So let’s avoid being too emotive about it and call it Ecosystem Servitude. A stronger, but equally appropriate word would be Ecosystem Slavery.

In a recent article, which I commented on this Monday, leading Oxford economics professor Dieter Helm described the idea that nature has intrinsic value as “harmless or dangerous”. To start with Helm displays his contempt for the notion of intrinsic value by misdefining it (perhaps through ignorance perhaps for effect). He suggests that intrinsic value means nature provides people with pleasure! What it is to see the world through such a utilitarian frame.

No, nature provides people with pleasure and this is a hugely important benefit for people, but it does not mean that therefore nature has intrinsic value. It may lead people to believe nature has intrinsic value, but that is a different thing. Anyway Helm regards whatever people believe or feel about nature as “harmless”, which is kind of him.

He goes on to suggest that it is dangerous for people to think nature has some kind of value in and of itself “that nature has value independent of people.” “to claim that there is value without us opens up the possibility that the world might be better off without us.”

Heaven forfend!

Does Helm seriously believe the world was put here for our benefit? Is Helm a christian of that ilk? Note how similar the language is to uber-neolibertarian Andrew Lilico, about whom I wrote yesterday.

I put to you a thought experiment. Take your average nature reserve and consider what “services” it provides, to dogs. (or look at a specific example here)

  • A place to run around
  •  Do a wee and a poo
  •  Chase birds and rabbits (if they’re lucky, even a beaver!)
  •  Follow scent trails
  •  Dig a hole
  •  Social interactions with other dogs

 

There are also incidental benefits for owners.

If an alien arrived from a distant galaxy and landed near a nature reserve in lowland England, taking up an unobserved position to do a spot of nature-watching, what would they conclude? They would see an awful lot of people being led by their dogs to this place, where the dogs would have a great time. They would conclude that these places had been purposefully created to provide benefits for the dogs, wouldn’t they?

Nature Reserves provide ecosystem services for dogs.

Now consider ecosystem services for bees.

Taxpayers pay farmers through agri-environment schemes, to grow flowers (pollinators mixes) instead of food crops. So we are paying farmers to provide ecosystem services, in the form of nectar pollen and places for them to build nests, to bees. Unfortunately, we are also paying farmers to use bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides on the adjacent crops, which via the soil, inevitably find their way into the flowers, killing the bees, or at least poisoning them.

Clearly we have not thought through this particular provision of ecosystem services for bees.

Add together the services for dogs, for bees and for every other living thing on the planet. This is one way of looking at the intrinsic value of nature. Perhaps Prof Helm could explain exactly why that is a dangerous concept. Perhaps it’s dangerous because it challenges the neoliberal frame which Prof Helm and his Natural Capital devotees wish the rest of us to adopt.

 

[Miles King has worked on British nature conservation for nearly 30 years. He has led conservation work at Plantlife and the Grasslands Trust as well as stints with English Nature, Dorset AONB and as a freelance conservation consultant. He writes about nature, society and politics at www.anewnatureblog.wordpress.com. In 2015 he is starting a new charity called People Need Nature, focussing on the importance of nature to people as a source of inspiration, joy, solace and contemplation.]