Re-evaluate Ecosystem Services?

Should the concept of ecosystem services be reconsidered? Ecosystem services are, put simply – the services generated or obtained from the functions of ecosystems and are classified into four service types: provisional, regulatory, supporting, and cultural services (see: UK National Ecosystem Assessment – Ecosystem Services for more information on ecosystem services and their classification [link in References]). The concept of ecosystems services has become a foundational principle within environmental science for decades and has become a standard principle within environmental economics; from classifying what functions and services are derived from environmental processes to auditing and valuing ecosystem services to better understand and preserve their value.

The ecosystem services concept has its critics, however, whose critique mostly draws on the concept's anthropocentric - human-centered nature, in which ecosystems are valued only for their use to humanity, rather than their intrinsic non-human values.

Jonathan Silvertown (Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh) in his opinion piece: Have Ecosystem Services Been Oversold? (2015) considers how the ecosystem services model has been oversold and the potentially damaging outcomes it could have on nature conservation and biodiversity. Silvertown questions the human-centric nature and monetization of nature under the ecosystem services framework by assessing current approaches and suggesting alternatives.

These services are, as Silvertown argues, mostly valued for their uses to mankind. The ecosystem services approach has become widely accepted and adopted by researchers and policymakers, and has evolved to incorporate monetary and market values for pricing and trading ecosystem services.

Silvertown objects to the evolution of the ecosystem services concept becoming focused on instrumental and economic values. Michael Sandel in his publication: What Money Can’t Buy, which Silvertown mentions, believes that the ecosystem service model is steeped in neoliberal economics which commodifies and sells nature, something he argues devalues natures true worth as nature has inherent existence values that cannot be priced, replaced or exchanged.

Tendencies to monetize and market ecosystem services fail to achieve what should be their primary objective; to protect ecosystems. In fact, Silvertown argues that the concept promotes exploitation and “puts a price on destruction”, placing nature at the mercy of markets and human needs. In response, the ecosystem services approach needs to reject the monetization of ecosystem services and generate approaches that serve in favour of conservation, not to devalue or sell it.

Advocates of ecosystem services, like Wilson and Law (2016) in their response to Silvertown’s paper argue that his portrayal of the ecosystem services approach as a slippery slope towards commodification is too simple an assumption, noting to the approaches' ability to incorporate non-monetary values as well as monetary values and its varied applications in many disciplines. Advocates argue that valuations of ecosystem services aren’t meant to ‘price’ ecosystems, but to place economic value on them; to value the costs (not just monetary costs) of protecting or losing the function of an ecosystem service.

The implications of Silvertown’s suggestions were they implemented in practice would revolutionize our current approach to ecosystem service valuations and would require fundamental changes not only in practice but on the central questions of why we value ecosystems and how.

Critical debate is vital to developing the ecosystem services approach as a science and practice. Silvertown offers fresh criticism of a concept that has become well established and sometimes uncontested in environmental thinking and puts the concept into broader perspectives on capitalism, ethics, and our relationship with nature. In doing so, he has revitalized the ongoing ecosystem services debate and makes us re-evaluate our current perceptions on the matter.


Iwan Pritchard