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Ecosystem Services: paradigm, prism, pablum or placebo?

Martin Sharman1 Brussels, December 2010 revised November 2011 If you could hold Earth, Like a bird’s delicate egg, You would not drop it2 – Bella Griscom (aged 11), Rhode Island There is a considerable risk that the concept of ecosystem service is becoming a cover for ever-more intense exploitation of nature, with no consideration of conservation. Paradigm: the theoretical framework An “ecosystem service” is defined as something derived from the living world that is of benefit to humans. The concept of ecosystem services is increasingly promoted as a pain-free way to integrate the protection of biodiversity into various human activities. The term has been around for a generation, but gained currency and influence after the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment categorised ecosystem services3 and showed that many classes of service are degraded globally. There is no question of the political momentum of the concept, as can be seen in almost any recent policy publication related to the conservation or sustainable use of nature. Understanding the rules that link biodiversity with ecosystem services and with human wellbeing is therefore of considerable importance to both policy and management. Conservation is intended to stop or slow the loss of biodiversity. The world is, however, losing biodiversity at ever-faster rates. The belief is that conservation isn't working, and that this is in part because the arguments used in the past to protect nature are ineffective. We therefore need better arguments to protect nature. The ecosystem service argument, it is claimed, appeals to a modern utilitarian nature, speaks directly to the concerns of politicians and policy-makers, and therefore has a better chance of convincing people to conserve nature than the older discourses. The paradigm focuses attention on the social value of services furnished by ecosystems, and supports the view that we have a responsibility for nature as a function of its notional value to us4. The concept of ecosystem services is developing in a different context from that which prevailed in the 1970s and 80s. Today's human population is more than 150% of what it was then, and the human ecological footprint has grown by a still larger factor. Back then the
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sharman@iname.com

The views expressed are purely those of the writer and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the European Commission. 2 Probably just boil it up and eat it, eh? 3 The classification identifies provisioning services such as food, regulating services such as flood control, cultural services such as recreation, and supporting services such as nutrient cycling. 4 This implies that the concept of ecosystem services, or its implementation, is void of moral consideration. This perception comes from observation. Texts may start by claiming that ecosystems provide aesthetic, cultural and spiritual services, and perhaps even that there are also moral or ethical reasons for conservation, but from that point on, the author normally adventures no further than the utilitarian.

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green revolution had suddenly allowed teeming populations to survive by transforming cheap fossil fuels into food, and the demand for agricultural land had temporarily stabilised. As populations have grown, so have demands for new agricultural land. There is no realistic prospect of a second green revolution – on the contrary, we anticipate decreasing availability of oil as world production reaches its absolute limit, beyond which increased production is impossible because the energy return is not sufficiently larger than energy invested in extracting the fossil. After this point, demand will continue to increase, but production will not follow, so availability will begin to decline. To try to fend off the ensuing inevitable and terminal reduction in the availability of oil, governments and businesses are making energetic efforts to substitute plant-derived oil for fossil oil; we have already seen significant increases in demand for land for energy crops. This has resulted in rapidly increasing competition both for water and for land, on the one hand with conventional agriculture (growing food and fibre), and on the other with nominally protected areas or the few remaining unexploited areas. Concurrently, water deficits, which limit agricultural production in many countries, have led to increased extraction of fossil water from underground. As water tables have fallen, lack of water for irrigation coupled with water shortages in urban areas has diverted more and more water from rivers. It has also lead to land grabs and the increased importation of water – in the form of cereals – from lands that can still grow crops. This in turn puts additional pressure to convert agriculturally marginal lands to production. In the face of these converging and mutually reinforcing crises, concerns about biodiversity seem at best over-refined, trivial or marginal, and at worst obstructive. The ecosystem services paradigm attracts because it offers a more grown up, muscular, anthropocentric and utilitarian argument than one based on species extinction or habitat degradation – or (heaven forfend) morality. Prism: a device that misrepresents whatever is seen through it Humans are increasingly simplifying and degrading our planet. Nature is falling apart in our hands. As we burn the remaining wildernesses, the smoke seems a metaphor for the increasingly hazy concept of nature itself. As the process continues, it becomes easier – and perhaps psychologically increasingly important – to imagine that nature has no intrinsic value, or even identity independent of humans. We have now fashioned a prism that works on that dismal principle to cloud our view. This was not always the case. Back in the ‘80s the vision was less foggy. The World Charter states frankly that "every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man, and, to accord other organisms such recognition, man must be guided by a moral code of action." “Respect regardless of its worth to man” and by “a moral code of action" are signally missing from the modern concept of ecosystem services. This is the basis for my dismay, disaffection and profound disgust with the paradigm. The prism of ecosystem services shows us a world where every hectare of Earth is productive, much of it farmed and the rest managed for amenity – another kind of farming. It shows a world where the only biodiversity remaining is there because it is useful to humans. Is this prism one that people concerned with the conservation of biodiversity should be offering to decision makers?
Nagoya, Japan, 21 October 2010—Facing increased uncertainties in the future supply of fresh drinking water … an array of water experts … are to discuss how natural

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systems can be reinforced to continue to provide water that they have always provided for free. … a global failure to adequately address climate change, biodiversity, and land degradation is threatening nature’s ability to continue to provide a supply of water for seven billion people. Still to be explored are topics that include … making ecosystems work to promote sustainable development and poverty reduction.

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press release of the Convention on Biological Diversity

I confess that the first time I read that opening paragraph, I misread “reinforced,” altogether missing the first two syllables. But it takes no misreading to notice that the elephant mysteriously missing from the room is the conservation of biological diversity. And then, a week later, came the rather sickening self-congratulatory puff.
Nagoya, Japan 29 October 2010 …historic decisions that will … meet the unprecedented challenges of the continued loss of biodiversity ... Governments agreed on a package of measures that will ensure that the ecosystems of the planet will continue to sustain human well-being into the future.

- press release of the Convention on Biological Diversity The Convention on Biological Diversity seems to have mutated into the Co-option of Biological Dividends to Save Capitalism (and humanity, of course, because otherwise capitalism won't work). An ecosystem service is something that the living world provides that is of benefit to humans. By definition, therefore, only certain ecosystems provide services; others provide disservices, and others, probably most, provide nothing. Too bad for them, then. Ah, but wait. Proponents of the concept of ecosystem services frequently claim that humans value the very existence of a species or ecosystem, and therefore its existence counts as a benefit to humans. This seems like sophistry since most people probably don't value much of the living world in such an abstract way – certainly, as we shall see, the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) do not think they do, and do not themselves. Furthermore, most destruction of biodiversity is the direct result of the operation of multinational corporations, whose sensitivity to what is or is not good for humans is limited to the bottom line, and to whom the only value of existence is that you can make money out of obliterating it. Thirdly, it's not clear what existence value means for the vast majority of species that remain unknown to science (and everybody else). Can we seriously claim that a species or ecosystem provides benefit if we're not aware that it exists? Does this mean I also benefit from the hypothetical existence of ecosystems on other planets?5 Leaving this aside, proponents might also claim that most, if not all, life on Earth contributes in some way or another to human well-being, if only through supporting services like providing an atmosphere, liquid seas, or fertile soils. This is of course true, but the narrow,
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In Spring 2001 the Taliban demolished two ancient stone statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, west of Kabul (and uncounted numbers of smaller statues), to stop heathens worshipping idols. Koichiro Matsuura, then Executive Director of UNESCO, said "They are destroying statues that the entire world considers to be masterpieces". The entire world except me, that is, because I had never heard of them before. Until I heard of them, they had no existence value to me. After I learned of their existence (when they no longer existed) I could feel anger and sadness at their destruction. The Taliban presumably felt that they had satisfied god's will by acting in line with Islamic laws. The non-existence value of the statues to them was quite likely greater than my regret at their conversion to rubble.

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distorting prism of "service to humans" contributes nothing to the argument. Life is necessary for life to exist. This is all that need be said; indeed, the less said about humans in this respect, the better. Humans are doing their best to demonstrate that they have nothing to contribute to the well-being of the planet, and that life on Earth will be a great deal better off once it has to put up with a great many fewer, and very much energy-poorer, humans. The stories we tell about nature say more about our view of the world than about nature. We use a narrow, skewed set of metaphors, some (system, function) taken from engineering and others (capital, resources, goods and services) from economics to describe something unique, almost miraculous, and endlessly wonderful. The word "capital" in an economic setting relates to nice simple things like the assets owned by a person or a business. Capital can depreciate but is not significantly modified when used to create goods or services. The metaphor of capital, when applied to the living world, is dangerously misleading.6 First, humans cannot reproduce the natural world. Second, any perceived stability is easily upset because natural systems respond to pressure – and they do so in complex ways. Third, changes to the natural world are nearly always irreversible in detail, and sometimes even in coarse outline. And fourth, in nature you can never do just one thing, everything is connected to everything else, there is no "away," and there most definitely ain't no such thing as a free lunch. None of these characteristics are shared by capital. It is difficult to experience much sense of humility or reverence for the natural world when one thinks of it as capital, resources and goods and services. Someone who regards nature as the source of meaning and knowledge is unlikely to feel comfortable with such brutalistic vocabulary, but would paint a picture with words that reflect greater insight, depth, and respect. "Ecosystem services" is a linguistic and mental prism that shows the client – Homo sapiens – commanding service from the servant – nature. How psychologically, emotionally and functionally different is the prism that shows the relationship as one of dependency of humans on nature? Thinking of milk as a service a mother gives to her child puts a mechanistic and remote spin on a relationship that is more holistically – and usefully – seen as one of dependency of the child on her mother. Pablum: naive, simplistic ideas that substitute for something more consistent The rush to the concept of ecosystem services seems to stem at least in part from a received idea that Those That Matter are incapable of understanding (or at least paying attention long enough to understand) any argument that does not immediately answer the question, “what’s in it for me?” Clearly, this view is arguable, but this is not the place to argue it. All that needs to be said is that it is at best unproven. More readily proven is that the loss of biodiversity has very little to do with either a failure to convince, or a failure to conserve. The failure to conserve is illusory – the world has vastly more conservation legislation, and vastly greater areas under at least nominal protection today than it did in the 1970s. Conservation is working; biodiversity in protected areas is, broadly speaking, reasonably well looked after. Little of this legislation and protection is based on utilitarian arguments; it is consistently based on morality and ethics, intrinsic value, and human responsibility towards nature. There was no failure of these principled arguments to convince the public and the legislators, at least.

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Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch! - Wolfgang Pauli

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Biodiversity is not lost in protected areas but in the areas that are not protected, where globalisation goes on bulldozing and burning as usual. What drives this rapacious behaviour? Ever since the early 1970s when Ehrlich and Holdren argued that population, affluence and technology combine to impact the environment, it has been an open secret that if human population size is the driving force, production and consumption are the pressures7 that lead to biodiversity loss. Our response to biodiversity loss has been to legislate for conservation (which corresponds to the "state" in the DPSIR framework). Our response, therefore, deals with neither the driver nor the pressures. No argument is likely to prevent further biodiversity loss under these circumstances – not even one that highlights how humans benefit from ecosystem services. The idea behind the ecosystem service argument has in fact been used in the conservation discourse for decades – arguably for as long as the conservation discourse itself. For example, the UN General Assembly of 30th October 1980 pointed out that the benefits that could be obtained from nature depended on the maintenance of natural processes8 and on the diversity of life forms, and that excessive exploitation and destruction of habitats jeopardised those benefits. In 1982 the UN's World Charter of Nature stated that "mankind is a part of nature, and life depends on the uninterrupted functioning of natural systems… Civilization is rooted in nature … living in harmony with nature gives man the best opportunities … Lasting benefits from nature depend upon the maintenance of essential ecological processes and life support systems, and upon the diversity of life forms, which are jeopardized through excessive exploitation and habitat destruction by man..." So even if the words were not "ecosystem services" but "functioning of natural systems" and "essential ecological processes and life support systems," the concept was perfectly well understood, rather well articulated, and perhaps even believed. But words like "essential ecological processes and life support systems" convey something rather different from a "service", especially if you start by defining a "service" as something that promotes human well-being. By adopting this definition you do four other things. First, if an "ecosystem service" is something that benefits somebody, it follows that humans and their requirements and desires are just as much an integral part of the concept as the biodiversity that comprises the system that provides the service. Thus cultures, context, topography, human distributions and demography are all inseparable from the concept, making it hard to see how to turn case studies into anything of more general import. The second thing you do is to make assumptions about human well-being and its link with what nature provides. This opens up a can of worms labelled "equity" and another labelled "technological fix" which comes in the "substitution" flavour and in the "bio-innovation" flavour. There is also a can of worms labelled "scale" with its flavours of space and time. Short-term local human well-being, after all, is very often increased by reducing biodiversity to the minimum possible – sometimes in someone else's back yard. Third, you deny - at least at first glance - that ecosystems provide services to non-human organisms. This is idiotic, as any ecologist who has heard of a niche or a habitat knows. The only way it can be true is if you restrict the meaning of the word "service" to benefits for a single species - us. Thus "ecosystem service" is not a biological construct, but a linguistic one.
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The EEA adapted the original OECD pressure-state-response conceptual framework by including driving forces and impacts, to give the Drivers-Pressures-States-Impacts-Responses or DPSIR framework. In practice, drivers and pressures are frequently indistinguishable and scale-dependent. 8 A similar argument had been made in the Vedas 5000 years earlier: "so long as this land has fields, forests and fountains, the Earth will survive, sustaining you and the generations that follow you."

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The fourth thing you do is to force a reflection on the mechanisms by which that service is provided. Rather than looking at a natural ecosystem, we might think of an anthropogenic one; the supply of bread, let's say. How do we get bread? By ploughing, planting, irrigating, fertilizing, keeping pests away, harvesting, storing, processing, packaging and distributing wheat, sunflowers, peanuts, corn, sugarcane and various other crops. To do all that we have to construct, maintain and repair appropriate equipment and infrastructure to undertake each of those steps, and to make and maintain and fuel the ships, computers, trucks, oil rigs, power stations, mobile phones, mining equipment and roads needed to do that construction, maintenance and repair. We've created an entire social, industrial and economic system to provide itself with bread. So in this model the obvious "ecosystem service" is the bakery (or the bakery section in the supermarket) but hidden behind it is a whole mess of highly interdependent stuff and lots and lots of cooperation and unexpected flows of energy and materials. A simplistic focus on the bakery is only possible if you do not understand much about how bread is made. The hope of conservationists is that the ecosystem services concept will allow managers of natural systems to sustain the delivery of services, and by doing so, protect biodiversity. There seem to be five instances of wishful thinking here. The first instance of wishful thinking is that humans can manage those complex dynamic ecological processes that link and sustain the diversity of biological organisation among genes, organisms, populations, communities, species, ecosystems, landscapes and regions and have allowed them to co-evolve. The way we've done that in the past is either by bulldozing it and planting potatoes or oil palms, or by putting a fence round it and leaving it alone. Figuring out which bits of an ecosystem provide the services has proved difficult, and for good reason. Each system is an integrated whole, but each is nested within a larger system and is made up of smaller systems. Management presumably implies manipulating the system somehow, but changes to any system affect the larger system and the smaller ones nested within it. Tricky. The third element of wishful thinking is that one can protect biodiversity by the actions needed to maintain one or more ecosystem services. The composition and structure of an ecosystem varies naturally as a result of changes in proportions of component species, changes in abundance of keystone species, or disturbances created by changes in external conditions. A "service" is an emergent property of the system. Understanding what parts of the system are necessary for the property to emerge is rarely going to be simple, but quite often there seems to be what is disparagingly called functional redundancy. In other words, you can lose quite a bit of the diversity of the system before the service is sufficiently degraded to cause you to abandon the effort. Thus it is wishful thinking to imagine that maintaining the services delivered by the system leads to conservation of its components. It is wishful thinking, too, to imagine that nature is a machine, and runs like clockwork. Biodiversity changes - especially the population sizes of key species - will alter ecosystem services, but we have almost no capacity to predict how a service might erode as the underpinning biodiversity changes. The fifth wish is that feedback is absent, and changes are instantaneous. But in many cases feedback loops operating between components of the systems cause the systems to fluctuate around a state in which changes in composition and structure are more or less balanced out over time, so that the system varies resiliently around a basin of attraction, retaining sufficient self-similarity over time for humans to identify and describe niches, habitats and ecosystems. Sudden disturbances, or persistent external pressures, may however provoke significant regime shifts, in which self-similarity is lost and a new ecosystem replaces the earlier one.
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Biological systems are often seasonal and complex, and in many cases depend on generation times, and so do not always immediately react to pressures. This natural built-in inertia means that feedback tends to operate after a lag, and changes may continue long after the pressure has been reduced. Human demands for provisions from nature, encouraged by the demand that ecosystems serve humans, will drive many systems to and beyond tipping points of whose existence there is little doubt, but which we will not be able to detect beforehand. The sixth wish (yes, I know, I said 5, but I’m on a roll here) is that the ecosystems of tomorrow will be the ecosystems of today. One predictable change concerns the capacity of ecosystems to provide habitat for any particular species. As ecosystems change, the niche most species occupied will tend to contract since the various variables that create effective boundaries to the niche will not change in synchrony. In a world of changing ecosystems, therefore, the abundance and range of most species will shrink. In many cases this will lead to the formation of meta-populations whose resilience is limited and long-term viability less than certain. Pressures affect different elements of biodiversity differently, causing differential shifts in ranges, and changes in population sizes and dynamics – so the ecosystems of tomorrow are not those of today. Already many parts of the world are host to unwanted novel ecosystems, consisting of species assemblages never seen before (many of which contain previously exotic species), and this trend will become steadily more prevalent. So far humans have proved inept managers of such novel ecosystems, and of the consequent changes in services provided by those ecosystems. Now I think about it, there are at least 7 elements of wishful thinking, one of which is that we’ll see warning signals. Ecosystems become more vulnerable to such critical transitions as internal links are disrupted or as they become fragmented into remnants that are sufficiently small that populations in each fragment are vulnerable to local extinction and sufficiently far apart that populations in the fragments are reproductively isolated from one another. This means that the system can go on delivering a service up to the moment when it stops, because the system has disintegrated. The 8th (they just keep coming) is easily illustrated by the bread analogy used earlier. In that example, bread was an ecosystem service of a society that is dependent on fossil fuel. An indistinguishable service was once provided by an ecosystem that relied on stonemasons and people who knew how to build windmills, wooden ploughs, and the collars and yokes for oxen. An entirely different ecosystem produced the same service. There is therefore no a priori reason to believe that sustaining the delivery of services will necessarily conserve any particular element of biodiversity. Wishful thinking is one thing. Disconnect and denial is another. The concept of the ecosystem service denies the validity of a voluntary limitation on our actions motivated by love, respect, and admiration. It has at its heart the view that humans are on a different plane from the rest of nature, that nature is meaningless until we give it meaning, and that we dominate it to such an extent that we may take what we wish from it. We have lost not only a sense of humility and respect, but any feeling at all for nature, which we now see only as an engineering problem – how to fit nature neatly into the economic and industrial world so as to maintain the level of comfort that the Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) humans currently enjoy. The concept does not pretend to seek to protect the natural world from the impact of humans. It seeks only to ensure the continued smooth supply of benefits to humans. It conveys the message that the ambition of industrial civilization to conquer every niche on the whole Earth is not just acceptable, but even somehow ordained, and morally justified.

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Clearly, scientists and practitioners motivated by conservation have not adopted the concept of ecosystem services for these reasons. They hope that the concept will allow them to place on the table non-economic, or at least non-monetary, reasons for conservation. Unfortunately, our current financial woes have led to a dogma of economic growth, in which even spectacular issues such as climate change have been relegated to minor irritants. In such an ambiance, non-economic justifications for conservation are likely to be brushed aside – as the Conference of the Parties of the CBD has so clearly shown. The undeniable fact is that wherever it makes economic sense, companies both big and small transform nature into shareholder dividends. They and their shareholders gain; whoever loses, it is not them. If we trust that the concept of ecosystem services will protect nature from these business interests we are gambling that the value of services provided by the intact ecosystem is greater than the value of the transformed system. This gamble has several risks attached. We are betting that the kinds of services provided by the ecosystem in question are of interest to the company considering its fate; most probably aren't. Most ecosystems provide services for poor people, simply because most people are poor. Their willingness to pay may be high, but their ability to pay may be miniscule. Conservation then depends on the difference between what the company can earn by transforming it into money and what the company can earn by selling the services it provides to poor people. We are, furthermore, betting that the ecosystem service has a high value in the short term that interests most companies, not the long term that interests future generations. Scientists working on the concept of ecosystem services point out that different people benefit in different ways from the same ecosystem. Proponents of the concept claim that it will somehow allow managers to deal with competing requests for service – perhaps in some quantitative way, but if not, then by some more qualitative comparison of the claims. How this is to be achieved is not clear. One does not need to be cynical, only aware of how the world works, to believe that the powerful (the wealthy and politically connected) win. Placebo: (Latin) I shall please The intended message of the ecosystem service is that nature is essential for human survival, but the message received may only be that nature will provide services that allow humans to continue their unsustainable ways. The ecosystem service concept is thus a useful placebo to calm down scientists and conservationists by distracting attention from the malady from which our planet suffers. Globally important drivers of change are operating at scales that nullify arguments that attempt to protect nature by appeals to well-meaning humans to cherish its services. And yet, and yet, the placebo of ecosystem services numbs us, a little, from the pain of the knowledge that the considerable effort we have expended over the last 40 years on trying to protect our living world has been to some extent wasted. Wasted, because efforts directed at conservation are directed at a symptom, not at a cause, and despite its numbing effect for some people, “ecosystem services” does nothing to change that. When nobody can address the problem of a grossly exceeded planetary carrying capacity, the placebo might help to dull the pain of those that suffer, while those that benefit can continue to party our world away. This is not just a placebo, however. It has its pernicious side effects, too. All around the globe, repeated misguided management attempts to maximise desired provisioning services reduce biodiversity and erode the regulating, cultural and sustaining services that were previously provided by that ecosystem or associated ecosystems. In general, ecosystem services will prove a fatally flawed argument for conserving species, or for protecting any but a select range of ecosystems that whoever makes the decisions views as useful for humans.

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Much current environmental policy is built on the assumption that ecosystem services are properties of the ecosystem itself, and therefore independent of the stakeholder, and at the same time linked to the biodiversity from which they derive (even if that link is tenuous and poorly defined). For this assumption to be valid it would require that the relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem services are not specific to the cultural, social, economic or geographical context in which they are enjoyed. If ecosystem services are not fixed products of ecosystems, but significantly determined by the social context, it would be unwise to establish general policy on the basis of any particular set of instances. If ecosystem services are always context-specific, then can there ever be a science of ecosystem services? Will we eventually discover some useful rules, or will we always be forced to fall back on case studies? Hard on the heels of the concept of ecosystem services came the idea of values of – and payment for – ecosystem services. Interestingly enough, the proponents of the idea that if you can show that an ecosystem provides services that might be worth money seem to have missed something important. The political paradigm for this decade is green, sustainable, and socially inclusive economic growth. The key word here is the noun, not the proliferation of adjectives. If your ecosystem service will provide me with new jobs and economic growth, I’m interested. If all you can say is that your service will replace jobs by providing services for free, surprisingly enough, that doesn’t push my buttons. To be honest, I’m all in favour of the loss of pollinators, because that provides a business opportunity. When all that matters is human benefit, do not be surprised if all that is seen is shareholder profit. Nothing else matters; we have given the game away. Pleasing business interests is important. Money, after all, makes the world go round. Despite their importance in the longer term, climate change and ocean acidification will not be the major driver of changes to biodiversity and ecosystems in the near future. The major terrestrial driver will be land use change, while in fresh waters it will be pollution and the modification of flow, and in the oceans it will continue to be human exploitation. And the major factor in all these drivers will be vested globe-spanning commercial interests. The idea of ecosystem services encourage us to abandon ecosystems that have no obvious commercial worth, and to focus on the few that provide high cash returns. We slash and burn ever faster into a future in which impoverished (but high priority!) shreds of what were thriving ecosystems may survive for a while embedded in and beleaguered by a sterile anthropogenic homogeneity. Many economists seem to feel that since one cannot protect everything in nature, and therefore have to be selective, the best way of prioritizing is by valuing natural capital, and including ecosystem services in the accounts. There are plenty of objections to that, but for the moment let us focus only on valuation. Valuation of marketed goods or services is straightforward, though valuation of other kinds of services is more problematic. We are told that measures of willingness to pay can help to determine the value of non-marketed services. It is hard to imagine how we have come to despise nature so much that the best we can do is ask people how much they are prepared to pay for someone else not to destroy it. Valuation of natural capital, we are told, should allow us to apply various methods of substitution, both between forms of natural capital and with man-made capital. However difficult it may be to conceive of a substitute for a savannah or a rainforest, this unreal perspective is bolstered by the observation that humans are "part of nature." This, you would think, would cause us to cherish nature; unfortunately, this initial observation is only the starting point of an argument that departs radically from any thought of connection or

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belonging. On the contrary, if humans are part of nature, then all human activity and creation is part of the diversity of the living world, and hence is a legitimate replacement for what we once thought of as nature. Gotcha. Poison: something that injures or causes the death of a living organism I know. This wasn’t in the title. Sorry. Arguments for the conservation of biodiversity must, of course, include utilitarian and anthropocentric appeals to self-interest. I state this without irony; this is only an acknowledgement of the spirit of the modern world. When we use these arguments we must, however, make sure that the focus on self-interest does not exclude the reason for the argument – the conservation of biological diversity. We must not allow ourselves to argue that nature only has value when it contributes to human well-being. The temptation to do so is strong, and the concept of ecosystem services has been taken up so uncritically and wish such enthusiasm that self-interest seems to have invaded the discourse anywhere that the word “ecosystem” occurs. Thus not only has the CBD apparently dropped any pretence that its work is for the benefit of anything except humans, it has also begun a curious and deadly revisionism.
Nagoya, Japan, 21 October 2010— The Ecosystems Pavilion is an innovative initiative … to explore an “ecosystem approach”—one that allows natural systems to provide the solutions for a slew of growing global concerns. - press release of the Convention on Biological Diversity

Um, no, actually. The CBD's own website, using text that dates from the year 2000, describes the ecosystem approach as a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. It does not, it says, preclude other management and conservation approaches, but could integrate all these approaches to conservation. The website says a lot about conservation and sustainable use, but nothing at all to suggest that the ecosystem approach will force nature to provide the solutions for a "slew of growing global concerns." No. What the Parties negotiated ten years ago was encapsulated in Principle 10: "The ecosystem approach should seek the appropriate balance between, and integration of, conservation and use of biological diversity." The ecosystem approach has now been coopted to become something that hopes to make natural systems provide the solutions to problems created by the unsustainability of the human enterprise. What has changed in those 10 years to make such a travesty possible? Many things, of course, but something critical has been changing steadily since my parents started their professional lives in the African bush: the WEIRD sense of entitlement. My parents’ world was a world of endeavour, of striving, of despair, of fear and of hope. Joan Baez summed up that generation: “Be not too hard for life is short / And nothing is given to man. / Be not too hard when he blindly dies / Fighting for things he does not own9.” How times have changed. It's all about me. I want it all and I want it now, never mind that I have done nothing for it. I’m entitled to all these nice things – why should I do anything to earn them? What limits? What boundaries? Ecosystem services give me something for nothing. Neat. I’m entitled to that.

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An ambiguous sentence. I take it to mean that we struggle to protect what we value.

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The most remarkable thing about the concept of ecosystem services is that its heart is in the right place. Trying to bring humans to a sense of what nature is worth to humans is not in itself an evil thing. Humans are provoking a geologically significant extinction spasm, while transforming the planet into an impoverished, dysfunctional simulacrum of what it once was. We are bringing about a world that can no longer support our species, at least not in our current numbers and with our current profligate habits of consumption. Explaining that to people is important, and success in that effort might allow us to find an acceptable transition to allow us to negotiate the coming century with dignity. Nature matters to our own survival. Yes. The poison of the concept consists in its easy casting aside of morality, ethics, and emotions. Its implicit rejection of connectedness, of accompaniment. Its blindness to the sense of being a part of something larger than yourself or of the stunningly improbable good fortune that we enjoy on this blue planet of living things. Its absolute denial of the sense of belonging. Its barren affirmation, in the end, that all is meaningless and that you are absolutely, and hopelessly, and endlessly alone.

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Stealing ideas from one source is plagiarism; stealing from many is research This paper stems originally from my own disquiet with our disconnect with the living world, and our headlong rush into unthinking hedonism. It borrows extensively from much that I have read on ecosystem services and the human condition. A small selection of recent references (with one exception, I list here only those published in the last 2 years) from whom I have stolen ideas include:
Adams (2008) Transition to Sustainability: Towards a Humane and Diverse World Anderson (2009) Spatial covariance between biodiversity and other ecosystem service priorities Brown (2009) PLAN B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization Burkhard (2010) Maps of Ecosystem Services - Supply and Demand Chevassus (2009) Approche économique de la biodiversité et des services liés aux écosystèmes Daly (2009) The (un)happy planet index: why good lives don't have to cost the Earth Diaz (2009) Biodiversity in forest carbon sequestration initiatives: not just a side benefit Ekins (2009) Reducing Resource Consumption: A Proposal for Global Resource and Environmental Policy ESCAP (2009) Payments for Ecosystem Services - A Guide for Policy Makers Gómez-Baggethun (2009) The history of ecosystem services in economic theory and practice: From early notions to markets and payment schemes Greer (2008) The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age Greer (2009) The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World Grigg (2009) The Ecosystem Services Benchmark - A guidance document Heinberg (2010) Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines Holmgren (2009) Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change Hopkins (2008) The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience Huitric (2009) Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Resilience: Governance for a Future with Global Changes ICSU (2009) Grand Challenges in Global Sustainability Research: 5 A Systems Approach to Research Priorities for the Decade Jackson (2009) Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy Kunstler (2005) The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century Monbiot (2008) Bring on the Apocalypse. 6 arguments for global justice Nelson (2009) Modeling multiple ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, commodity production, and tradeoffs at landscape scales Pradhana (2010) A Supply and Demand Framework for Ecosystem Services Redford (2009) Payment for Ecosystem Services and the Challenge of Saving Nature Ruppert (2009) Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post Peak Oil World Schaich (2010) Linking ecosystem services and the cultural landscape Seppelt (2010) On Integrated Quantification, Modelling and Valuing of Ecosystem Services: State of the Art and Upcoming Challenges Skrotch (2009) Saving Nature under the Big Tent of Ecosystem Services: a Response to Adams and Redford Sorrell (2010) Energy, Growth And Sustainability: Five Propositions van Vuuren (2009) Growing within Limits. A Report to the Global Assembly 2009 of the Club of Rome Victor (2008) Managing without growth Vira (2009) Ecosystem services and conservation strategy: beware the silver bullet Walz (2010) Land cover and spatial heterogeneity: Place-based assessments of ecosystem services Weinstein (2010) Sustainability science: the emerging paradigm and the ecology of cities Zurlini (2010) Potentials of ecosystem service accounting at multiple scales

Citations are abbreviated, and only the first author of multi-author publications is cited, but a quick glance at Google will provide the full reference.

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