Collectively, people of the Western world like to know how much things are worth. We use terms like ‘getting our money’s worth’ and ‘bang for the buck’ on a daily basis, and brand names and price tags are everywhere we look! Advertisements are always telling us we will pay less for something that is worth more, and expensive clothes, watches, and cars are considered symbols of status in our consumer-focused world. Dollar signs are a form of communication that expresses our collective agreement on the worth of things- what someone is willing to pay for a good or service is tangible and uniform in this way. When we view the environment, most of the time we value it based on what it can do for us; provide us with resources or a vacation spot, or even childhood memories. However, you can’t pay for anything with childhood memories. By assigning economic value to ecosystem services, we are able to better advocate for responsible management and conservation of our environment and its resources, but we risk promoting an artificial concept of wildness and naturalness.
Ecosystem services are the benefits that humans receive from ecosystems. Provisioning services, the products we gain, such as food, timber, and natural medicines are the most obvious category. However, ecosystems also provide us with regulating services such as pollination and climate and disease regulation, supporting services that are necessary for the production of all other services, such as soil formation and nutrient cycling, and, cultural services. This last category may seem rather abstract, but ecosystems provide the people who are part of them with cultural heritage, sense of place, recreation and specific education, which are all very important in why we value our environment (Alcamo, 2003).
Now, if we consider a favorite camping spot from our childhood, we understand that the aspects we enjoyed about it- easy to find firewood, lots of squirrels to look at, a beautiful view, many great memories- all fall under one or more of the categories of ecosystem services. If the owner of that campground or spot were to consider selling it to be developed, it wouldn’t be enough to list those things we value about it as reasons why the owner shouldn’t sell. We would have to explain the economic worth of the site; that is what economic valuation is: “Valuation of ecosystem services can provide evidence of the importance of sustaining and enhancing those resources and the ecosystems that provide them” (Gabrowski, 2012, pg 900).
While the concept of pricing the exact worth of ecosystems like oyster reefs or places we love like our favorite camping spot may seem artificial or even impossible, it is an important tool for putting difficult concepts into uniform units of worth that can help us advocate for conservation of our environment (Gabrowski). For example, politicians probably aren’t going to be interested in contributing to conservation efforts for oyster reef habitat if you just tell them that oysters “help counteract anthropogenic nitrogen loading” (Gabrowski, 2012, pg 901). But, if you can calculate how many kilograms of nitrogen a square meter of oyster reef removes from the water every year and multiply that times the cost of an annual nitrogen removal rate, then you can present the amount of money that would avoid being spent if oyster reefs were conserved, which is much more relatable (Gabrowski).
So, economic valuation of ecosystem services is a very useful tool in managing and conserving our environment and resources, but we can’t take it too seriously. If we actually let ourselves see the world solely through dollar signs and instrumental worth, something that can be bought, or a collection of bills to be paid, we view ourselves as above our environment; in control of it like a cashier is in control of a register. This concept of the natural world, of wildness, is artificial. Ecosystems do not exist to serve us; the environment couldn’t care less about what we gain from it, except that in our taking we negatively affect it. We are a part of the system, caretaker is just one of our many roles-not the only one. In Preserving Wildness, Wendell Berry explains that while we are not completely the same as nature, there is also not a concrete division between nature and humanity either. We depend on wildness, but also “we exist under its dispensation and by its tolerance” (Berry, 1987, pg 517). We should remember this in our efforts to preserve and conserve our environment and its resources, especially through economic valuation of ecosystem services, in order to avoid promoting an artificial concept of how we fit into nature and wildness.
Alcamo, Joseph et Al. (2003).Ecosystems and Human Well-being: A Framework for Assessment.
Berry, Wendell. (1987). Preserving Wildness. Collection of Essays.
Gabrowski, Jonathan et Al. (2012). Economic Valuation of Ecosystem Services Provided by Oyster Reefs.